Congress alarmed by plans to use Russian system to route 911 calls

At the command post for GLONASS management in the Titov Main Space Testing Center in the city of Krasnoznamensk in the Moscow region (Reuters / Sergey Pyatakov)
Plans to route 911 location calls via Russia’s GLONASS satellite system have sparked national security concerns among some members of Congress, despite assurances that its use will be limited and it will help save lives in emergencies.

Chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee, Rep. Mike Rogers, has sent an angry letter to the Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) after learning about the intentions of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“In view of the threat posed to the world by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, it cannot be seriously considered that the US would rely on a system in that dictator’s control for its wireless 911 location capability,” the document obtained by the Washington Times said.

According to the Alabama Republican, America’s “response to Russia’s hybrid warfare, arms control cheating, illegal invasions of sovereign nations, and energy-based extortion must be broad-based isolation and counter-leverage.”

Rogers asked the Department of Defense and DNI to detail the extent of GLONASS use and the effect on national security if Russia provides the satellite communications.

Chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee, Rep. Mike Rogers (Image from wikipedia.org)

The plan to use the Russian system was develop by a group of US top mobile operators together with Association of Public Safety Communications Officials and the National Emergency Number Association.

It is aimed at improving the ability of the police and emergencies services to locate people calling for help from their mobile phones.

GLONASS was chosen because similar US systems don’t cover the required territory, Trey Forgety, National Emergency Number Association’s director of government affairs, said.

Besides that, GLONASS is a lot better than GPS in locating mobile phones when the call is made from inside the building.

“Our view is that we ought to be leveraging anything that is available to find someone in an emergency,” he explained.

In a letter to FCC, Sprint - one of the companies involved in the project - stressed that GLONASS will not be used exclusively, adding that the plan “advocates taking advantage of a tool that is available now to allow carriers to improve location information.”

The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials has described Rogers’ national security concerns as groundless.

They are fueled by “plainly false statements that stretch the imagination to try to make a case that the roadmap’s inclusion of GLONASS for location determination presents a security threat,” Jeffrey Cohen, the association’s government relations director, stressed in a letter to the FCC.

Pentagon spokesman, Army Colonel Steve Warren, gave an assurance that Rogers’s letter will be addressed by the Department of Defense.

The decision to use the Russian system has not been finalized, Rear Admiral David Simpson, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said, adding that the organization is only reviewing 911 location options.

“We are committed to protecting both public safety and national security as we continue to examine the input and issues in the proceeding, and will coordinate with our colleagues across the government to ensure that national security needs are addressed,” Simpson said, as cited by the Washington Times.

The FCC will decide whether to stick with GLONASS during its public meeting, scheduled for January 29.

It’s not the first time the FCC have attempted to expand communications at the expense of national security, catching the Pentagon off guard.

In 2013, the State Department considered allowing Russia’s space agency Roscosmos to build six facilities, equipped with antennas, across the US.

The move was prevented by Congress, which banned the Pentagon from signing contracts for commercial satellite services with foreign companies.

Moscow has been developing GLONASS since 1976 on instructions from the Defense Ministry, with full global coverage enabled in 1995.

The system currently comprises 28 satellites, including 24 operational spacecraft, three spares, and one platform in flight-testing phase.

There are 19 ground stations providing consumers with a navigation signal with an accuracy of one meter.

Three stations are also located in the Antarctic and one in Brazil, with two more to be constructed in Kazakhstan and one in Belarus.