AT&T & T-Mobile now using Apple’s Hybridized Emergency Location tech for 911 calls

While major mobile platforms such as Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android come with rich location services helping apps like Uber and Facebook pinpoint a user’s location, emergency services were unable to use this data. Thankfully, that’s beginning to change now.

According to a new report today in The Wall Street Journal, wireless carriers and Silicon Valley companies after years of pressure are finally starting to work together to solve this problem.

The story reveals that Apple has developed a technology that also made its rich iPhone location information available to wireless carriers. This has been going on for some time under a program called HELO, an acronym for Hybridized Emergency Location.

AT&T and T-Mobile recently started using Apple’s technology, meaning calling 911 on an iPhone on one of those networks could deliver more accurate location information.

The ability for an emergency service to automatically receive a caller’s precise geographical location would be especially helpful when a caller can’t speak or identify their location. As per US regulators, as many as 10,000 lives could be saved each year if the 911 emergency dispatching system were able to get to callers one minute faster.

The report notes that AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint are also testing Google’s technology, and T-Mobile says it plans to activate it soon.

From the report:

In 2014, after talking about the 911 problem over lunch, a group of Google engineers on the Android location team decided to look into it. One engineer, Akshay Kannan, decided to dedicate his ‘20% time,’ which is the free time Google allots employees to experiment, to find a way to provide the more precise location data to 911 operators. The project was code-named Thunderbird.

Mr. Kannan started by attending a 911 conference in Denver. “The first thing we heard everyone say was: ‘Before we’ll even ask, ‘911, what’s your emergency,’ now the standard is to ask, ‘what’s your location,’” he said. “It was extremely clear this was a huge problem.”

Officials at BT Group PLC, which manages the U.K.’s emergency response system, were already tackling the problem and quickly agreed to work with Google. In mid-2016, they jointly launched a technology that improved location accuracy of emergency calls down to a radius of just a few yards. It is now in use in at least 10 countries, including the U.K., Austria and Estonia.

Apple’s and Google’s methods are different and each approach works only on their own devices. Back in 2015, the FCC passed a rule requiring carriers to deliver more accurate location data for 80% of calls by 2021.

Apple and other mobile platform vendors combine the GPS location data with crowd-soured location data derived from a device’s proximity to nearby Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers.

The data is occasionally relayed back to Apple, helping enhance mapping and other location-based services. iOS also augments this data with the barometric pressure, which indicates altitude. Still, wireless carriers and vendors like Apple will have to co-operate more closely to ensure that enhanced location data was available to emergency services.