In 2009, the federal government loaned half of a billion taxpayer dollars to a company that promised it could help revolutionize American infrastructure. The company manufactured a product that used an unusual technology – panels of “copper indium gallium selenide” – and its executives told the Obama administration that this unproven technology was more efficient than the solutions already on the market. By using a cylindrical shape, the panels could collect sunlight from all angles, concentrate that energy, and use it to power American homes.
The company was relatively new, and its product was expensive and untested, but the federal government liked the promise of this new technology that could replace traditional solar paneling techniques. Internal emails show the White House put pressure on OMB officials to OK the loan despite the company’s financial problems.
The company, Solyndra, filed for bankruptcy two years later and has become a warning sign of future promises.
The federal government isn’t so great at picking winners. When it bet on Solyndra, the administration let its wide-eyed optimism overshadow the technological and market realities. Despite the best of intentions from the government and the company, the project failed. In that case, the harm was mostly financial. After Solyndra went under, taxpayers ended up footing the bill for the $535 million loan. Perhaps some citizens lost faith in the impartiality of their government. Those already jaded by the political process simply shook their heads in frustration.
But sometimes the damage in picking winners and losers can go far beyond financial harm. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is trying to decide which location technology to require carriers to use for the next generation of 911 services. Currently, when a wireless caller dials 911, the FCC requires that the caller’s general location information – latitude and longitude – be transmitted to the local 911 center. But for the last few years, the industry and agency have had a more ambitious goal: to provide greater indoor accuracy, so emergency responders will know from where within a building someone is calling. The potential benefit is clear: A quicker response that could save lives.
Early this year, the FCC encouraged industry and public safety groups to work together to develop a proposal that everyone could be happy with. Last month, a multistakeholder coalition did just that, building a consensus plan that would use proven technologies over the next six years to give dispatchers a specific indoor location. The plan was developed by all the major wireless carriers in concert with public safety partners the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which represent the nation’s emergency responders and 911 call center operators.
Using the readily available technologies of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, carriers could send public safety officials a “dispatchable” location – a specific address that emergency personnel can be sent to. The plan utilizes a transparent testbed that operates under real-world conditions. It sets up a timeline with ambitious milestones for standards development and implementation. And it looks toward the future, proposing additional study of the value of barometric pressure sensors to provide vertical location.
Most importantly, the plan uses technology-neutral solutions that don’t rely on the unproven promises of any particular vendor. The primary objection to this plan is the “FindMe911 Coalition.” In 2013, years after the FCC had begun its process to find a solution that would work across the industry, a new vendor called TruePosition asked the agency to adopt new indoor accuracy rules. TruePosition sells its own technology, which uses proprietary technologies that are not fully supported in any wireless network today. TruePosition’s plan depends on hardware installed at each base station, which is antithetical to the design of modern cell networks.
TruePosition’s technology is not commercially available, as it is only still in a prototype phase. The company has promised it could use its embryonic technology coupled with emerging barometric pressure sensors to try to detect the precise vertical location of the caller. While commendably ambitious, the technology just hasn’t matured yet – and even when it does “work,” it isn’t always accurate enough to distinguish between floors.
In order to project an appearance of industry support, TruePosition spearheaded a lobbying effort called the FindMe911 Coalition, which has been visiting offices on Capitol Hill and at the FCC. In contrast to the organic multistakeholder process that has created the industry-public safety consensus plan, TruePosition’s coalition is nothing more than a veneer meant to distract from the fact that none of the major carriers think its plan or its technology is feasible.
Public safety should not depend on a single company, a single point of failure, or a single unproven technology. There’s a reason the government has encouraged a multistakeholder approach, and there’s a reason that approach uses the proven technologies of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth that are already installed in virtually every modern phone. It’s one thing to bet on an unproven company when it comes to powering homes. It’s quite another thing to place your faith in an unproven company when it comes to life-threatening public safety applications.
Once again, the federal government is facing a choice on what technology to support – but this time the result could be life and death.
David Williams is the President of The Taxpayers Protection Alliance