A US internet giant is doing what the EU refused to do to improve emergency calls

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A draft EU telecoms law could do a lot of good for Europe, but there is a risk it could be diluted by the Brussels compromise swamp. [Pexels]

The European Commission is missing a big chance to give the emergency number 112 a needed boost, writes Gary Machado.

Gary Machado is executive director of the European Emergency Number Association.

How is it possible that the EU managed to do so much to get rid of roaming fees but so little to fix some technical problems with the European emergency phone number 112?

The European emergency phone number 112–which is already available–is one of the many topics the EU institutions struggle to communicate about. Decades after the emergency number was created by an EU law, 112 remains unknown to the vast majority of Europeans.

The European Parliament has loudly supported improving the 112 service for about 10 years, notably the caller location technology. Emergency services need to know where you are to rescue you.

Today in Europe, 75% of emergency calls are made from mobile phones, but the location accuracy – or rather inaccuracy – provided to rescuers is off by two kilometres on average, with some location data that is off by 10 km or more.

The Commission is about to miss an opportunity to make needed changes to support 112 as part of its proposal to overhaul EU telecoms law next week.

The EU law guaranteeing that calls to 112 must track callers’ location is not enforced, and there are still several member states where very inaccurate caller location is received by fax (yes, by fax!) — on average 28 minutes and 58 seconds after an emergency call is made (yes, 28 minutes and 58 seconds).

Technologies to improve caller location data are available and inexpensive, and there are huge economic and social benefits of using them. About €300 billion could be saved over 15 years in the EU if we use technologies like global navigation satellite systems and WiFi location information to track emergency callers.

But the Commission insists that it must remain “technology neutral”.

WhatsApp and Skype targeted in Commission's revamp of telecoms laws

Internet companies like WhatsApp and Skype are worried they’ll have to comply with new EU telecoms laws for the first time when the European Commission proposes a legislative overhaul this September.

All Android phones in the world are now equipped with advanced mobile location technology for emergency calls (AML). The first AML trials actually started in 2014 after some UK emergency services managers lost faith in the EU’s will to do the right thing. Out of all 112 calls using AML some 85% are located with an accuracy of less than 50 metres. Emergency call centres in Estonia and the UK are fully operational with AML and receive thousands of precise location reports from Android phones each day, free of charge.

The Commission has decided to… wait and see whether to support AML. Meanwhile, Google engineers spent many hours and used their access to a billion devices and people to develop the life-saving technology.

You’d think that since Google is developing its own location-tracking technology, the Commission would ask other smartphone OS giants to do the same. They are not and probably will not. My organisation has been told that AML first needs to be deployed in every EU country before any EU regulation can have “European added-value”.

We have somehow lost faith in the EU institutions’ ability to improve the 112 service. When I moved to Brussels I didn’t think that I would one day have to rely on a US-based internet giant while our own institutions do so little.

Google solved the core issue facing emergency services, even though it has no commercial interest in doing so (Google does not store the location data used by emergency services). Meanwhile, the Commission poured tens of million of euros into eCall, an in-vehicle emergency call system that is really an excuse to open up a market for connected cars – eCall, even when fully deployed, will only make up a maximum of 1.7% of the total number of emergency calls in the EU. We’re not against eCall, but the investment and the regulations are disproportionate when compared to the complete inaction on mobile caller location–which make up 75% of emergency calls in Europe.

The EU bubble needs to learn to do the right thing if it can save lives, costs nothing and can easily be done. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

EU states reprimanded for 112 emergency call failures

National governments have failed to use the latest caller location technology to help emergency services find people who use the 112 pan-European emergency number, the European Commission said today (11 February).

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