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Is the FCC Moving Too Fast on Wireless 911 Location Accuracy?

The wireless industry is bristling over the Commission’s proposed rulemaking on indoor horizontal and vertical wireless 911 location results.

by / February 25, 2014
Jessica Mulholland

The Federal Communications Commission last week announced it would adopt new rules to ensure better location accuracy results for wireless 911 calls. But while public safety advocates have applauded the move, the industry is urging caution, citing technology concerns.

CTIA – The Wireless Association, which represents the major carriers, has called for the FCC to base its rules on verified data, not aspirational goals. In a statement on its website, the organization pointed to results from the Communications, Security, Reliability & Interoperability Council (CSRIC)’s Location Accuracy Test Bed last year that indicates further technology development is needed to locate indoor wireless callers.

Brian Josef, assistant vice president, regulatory affairs, for CTIA, told Government Technology that arguably the best-performing technology in the test bed only located a call coming from the correct building one-third of the time.

“The concern from the industry standpoint is, you’re going to subject carriers to enforceable rules that are not consistent with the technology as it exists today, but also don’t reflect a viable timeline [to get the technology more reliable],” Josef said. “That’s why we believe that these rules, as proposed, are aspirational. That’s the reluctance on the part of the industry.”

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in a statement that she understands the pace could be deemed as aggressive. But she believes the rulemaking process will be fruitful in helping present options to improve wireless 911 location accuracy.

“Today’s item asks the wireless industry, the public safety entities, and others to work collaboratively toward developing alternative proposals for our consideration,” Clyburn said. “And allow me to point out that one of the hallmarks of leadership in this industry is that it has, on many occasions, exceeded our expectations.”

The FCC’s current rules require wireless carriers to give 911 call centers the location of wireless 911 callers within parameters based on outdoor location accuracy. But with landline phone service decreasing, the Commission now wants location accuracy beefed up in indoor environments such as multi-story buildings. In the short-term, the FCC wants carriers to provide vertical location for the floor a call is coming from, and in the long-term, the specific room.

Public safety advocates are adamant, however, that the technology does exist to carry out the FCC’s wishes. Jamie Barnett, director of the FindMe 911 Coalition and former chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau said the technology “definitely exists” for horizontal indoor location accuracy and with minor changes, could be accurate to a 50 meter circle. He believes that will come out quickly now that the FCC is eyeing accuracy rules.

In regard to vertical location, Barnett said most people would categorize getting within three meters for 60 percent of wireless calls within the next few years an “aggressive” goal. But he felt the FCC’s interest is going to spur technology companies to come forward with ideas on how to do it.

“In some ways, the FCC is challenging industry to come forward with these solutions,” Barnett said. “But really I think it will focus on current technology that already exists and bringing it forward. If they’re able to achieve that and show over these next few months that that can be instituted within three years and 80 percent within five years, that’ll be a huge step forward for public safety.”

Next Steps

Barnett said he believes the FCC is going to fast-track the rule-making process and guessed that the Commission may issue its final rules before the end of 2014. He said the wireless industry is “obviously concerned” about the costs of location accuracy improvements, but felt if the carriers want the nation to go wireless, then when people have an emergency, they need to be assured help can find them when they call 911.

Josef disagreed that cost was a concern of the wireless carriers. He said the industry is saying the state of technology doesn’t give first responders “actionable information,” and that the FCC has not addressed the deployability of a system and how long it would take.

“Certainly the industry’s viewpoint is we want to do this as quickly as possible, but it has to be reasonably achievable,” Josef said. “And I think those are the issues that need to be addressed in these proceedings that we’ll certainly engage with the relevant stakeholders to try and get answers to.”

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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