The Impact of E-911 on Consumer Expectations

Adam Stone

Updated · Dec 21, 2001

What do consumers want on their cell phones? For those still fishing for an m-commerce angle, the latest answer may come as a surprise.

Wireless retailer asked more than 1,000 people what they felt was the “most important feature” in a wireless phone. Respondents could rank their top three choices from among six possible features. Of those who answered, 7 percent asked for email, and 4 percent said they want a built-in digital camera. Just 1 percent rated music and video-game functions as the most important feature.

A whopping 59 percent ranked “the ability to have 911 dispatchers locate your phone in the case of an emergency” as their most-wanted choice.

In the view of CEO Delly Tamer, this post-Sept. 11 surge in consumers' desire for “E-911” services is good news for mobile-commerce aspirants. “One you have E-911 you will not only have better safety, but also better m-commerce,” he predicted.

Tamer and others argue that the big win for mobile commerce will come with location-based services – things like maps and weather reports and on-the-spot coupons that can be generated based on the location of the wireless device. The push for E-911 will spur development of locator technologies, “and once you can locate a customer within 100 feet, there are lots of great features and issues that you can bring to that,” Tamer said.

It's possible that E-911 will become a reality even without a push from the mobile public, but that high level of demand could certainly help speed a process that has been bogged down for many months now. Congress long ago mandated that carriers enable their networks to support E-911 functions, but with several congressional deadlines come and gone, the industry still has not rolled out the capability, which some analysts have predicted could cost as much as $1 billion per carrier.

Tamer suggests that the public demand for E-911 could get the process moving at last, but some analysts question whether a location-finding technology would in fact boost the profile of mobile commerce applications.

One type of location mechanism works by measuring the time delay of a phone signal, then calibrating the phone's location relative to the nearest signal tower – but that system can only provide a very approximate location, explained Ray Jodoin, a wireless industry analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group.

Other systems – those based on the global positioning satellite network (GPS) — are more accurate. But with GPS the receiving device must have a visual line of sight to the satellite.

“All the pie-in-the-sky stories about walking past the local Gap store in the mall and having your phone vibrate with an instant coupon – that's utter nonsense, because in a shopping mall your phone not going to be able to see the GPS satellite,” said Jodoin.

At the Yankee Group, analyst Adam Zawel pointed out that “you can already do location-based commerce today,” and that most people are not choosing to do so.

“You can enter you zip code and buy tickets for the nearest movie theater,” he noted. Of course, E-911 would provide automatic location identification, “so you would not have to enter in your zip code, since the system would already know where you are. But there is not a major difference between those two experiences.”

Moreover, he noted, Yankee Group's latest surveys show that E-911 is not necessarily tops on everyone's wish list. According to the Boston-based research firm, 52 percent of end users said they want driving directions, 49 percent want traffic and weather, and 36 percent crave local entertainment information. “All three of those can be delivered without automatic location identification. They can be delivered simply by entering the town or the zip code,” he said.

Tamer meanwhile remains upbeat about the potential contained within the push for E-911. In the first place, he said, the emergency system could bring with it a new set of standards that exceed today's technological limitations. “We all have to realize that because of e-911 capabilities we will have a [dramatic increase in] the technology offered on cell phones,” he said.

As for the range of location-based services that consumers might pay for, he suggested, the best of those won't even show up on the horizon until E-911 is already firmly in place. “Once we have the technology there, then we will all have to think about the best way to us it so that customers will just love it,” he said.

Adam Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md.

Reprinted from M-Commerce Times

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