Here is all you need to know about the Panic button

  • Anirban Ghoshal, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 05, 2016 13:59 IST

The government announced that come 2017, all cellphones will carry a ‘panic button’. This set off a panic attack among both cellphone makers and telecom service providers, leaving the man on the street bemused. We examine the idea, and possible means of its execution.

What is a panic button?

Which countries have it? It is a button that triggers an emergency (Save our soul) message or call, which are sent to pre-configured numbers set by a phone’s owner. While there smartphone applications such as ‘Panic Button’ that discharge the above functions, no country in the world has dedicated physical buttons for the purpose. Chandigarh Police launched a panic button app last year.

Is it a new development?

No. The Nirbhaya Fund Scheme launched in early 2014 had the implementation of a “panic button alert to transport and police through visual, text and voice” as one of its objectives.

The move was also pushed by the ministry of women and child development in the same year. The ministry started negotiations with the department of information technology (DeitY) in 2015 and set a deadline of March 2016 for the launch of the button.

DeitY issued guideline for implementing the alert system in December 2015 and requested the department of telecommunication (DoT) to issue further orders.

What do the new rules say?

According to the latest rules issued by DoT on April 22 starting 2017 all feature phones should have the facility of panic button configured to the numeric key 5 or 9 and all smart phones should have a dedicated panic button or one configured to pressing the on-off button three times in quick succession.

Also, starting January 2018, all mobile phones will be required to have the facility of location identification through global positioning system (GPS).

Similar recommendations were present in DeitY’s 2015 proposal, which also sought the panic button to trigger a call to 112, India’s umbrella emergency number. The DoTs notification, however, says nothing SMSes or calls being sent to pre-designated numbers.

So what will happen when someone presses the panic button?

It is expected that a message or call would go pre-configured numbers including to a law enforcement agency. “Panic button means there will be a button (on phone), if any women is in distress, someone is harassing her then she can press this button. Local police station and prescribed number of her family will automatically get alert. This will start from January 1,” telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said recently.

Why is there a hue and cry among handset-makers?

The handset-makers are worried that the inclusion of GPS and the implementation of the alert system software will increase the cost of handsets and affect sales. According to Indian Cellular Association (ICA) adding a GPS component to a feature phone would cost ` 66.7 with the required software raising the overall cost to ` 400. Smartphones are generally equipped with GPS, which is vital for map applications.

Are the claims justified?

In 2015, feature phones accounted for 60% of handset sales in India at 144 million, according to CyberMedia Research. But considering that feature phone sales are declining (at 17% a year) and smartphone sales are rising fast (at 35% a year), by 2017 smartphone sales would exceed that of feature phones.

Therefore handset makers’ claim that the additional cost (`400) would wipe out the entrylevel feature phone segment may be a bit exaggerated.

What happens now?

There seems to be policy paralysis with the implementation of this directive. Prasad has said that he will take up the issue up with the industry. “Manufactures who understand this have given their support. My expectation is that they will render their support,” he said.

Meanwhile, ICA president Pankaj Mohindroo has suggested that the inclusion of GPS be relooked. He was possibly hinting that alternative GPS or A-GPS could be used.

Decoded: GPS VS A-GPS

Global positioning system (GPS) device uses an antenna to send and receive signals from a satellite, which helps to track the device’s position. It requires a high-power antenna that consumes more power. This is a standalone device that does not require the SIM card to be inserted.

A-GPS or assisted GPS uses a smaller power and efficient GPS antenna to send signals to the nearest mobile tower instead of a satellite. The mobile tower in turn connects with the satellite to find the device’s location. This is the technology employed in most smartphones and is faster compared to normal GPS. This requires the presence of a SIM card.

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