FCC Chairwoman Clyburn Seeks To Revisit Wireless Emergency Calling Rules

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By Bryce Baschuk  

Sept. 24 --The FCC should revisit its Enhanced 911 (E911) rules to improve location accuracy for wireless emergency calls made indoors, acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said.

Clyburn said, at a Sept. 24 event hosted by the Federal Communications Bar Association, that the commission's current wireless E911 rules “were primarily designed to deal with outdoor locations and this clearly needs to be reevaluated.” The commission has scheduled an Oct. 2 public workshop to further examine the issue and explore solutions to increase the accuracy of wireless E911 location information.

The FCC has noted that nationwide, 70 percent of 911 calls are placed from wireless phones and the number of those calls placed from indoor locations is growing as consumers increasingly migrate away from landline telephones.

Lawmakers and public safety officials have recently called on the commission to revise its rules to address the unique problems associated with delivering accurate E911 location information from wireless calls to public safety officials. On Sept. 12, a group of four Democratic senators and 13 Democratic representatives sent separate letters urging Clyburn to quickly reevaluate the commission's rules to improve the reliability of E911 location services.

'Lives at Stake.'

The lawmakers referenced a separate letter sent by the California Chapter of the National Emergency Number Association which described the lack of accurate E911 location data as a “serious public safety crisis and a significant stress on our public safety assets.” The group warned that “lives are at stake” and “now is the time for action on existing rule compliance and on establishing indoor accuracy requirements before more lives are put at risk.”

“Clyburn is very smart to seize this issue,” an industry consultant to a technology vendor told Bloomberg BNA in a Sept. 24 interview. “The problems at the Navy Yard last week make clear that indoor communications services, including location services, are increasingly important to public safety. The likelihood of rules is no longer a question of 'if,' but instead 'when.'” He was referring to a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard Sept. 16.

First responder union officials recently said some emergency radios failed to work Sept. 16, causing D.C. police and firefighters to use their personal cell phones or send people to communicate outside of the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command building where Aaron Alexis is suspected to have shot and killed 12 people.

It has been three years since the FCC last sought to initiate a rule-making to revise the commission's rules regarding E911 location requirements.

In 1999 the FCC approved an order [17 CR 739] which requires handset-based location providers to deliver location information accurate within 50 meters for 67 percent of calls and within 150 meters for 95 percent of calls. In 2010, location technology vendors told the commission [see FNPRM and NOI, FCC 10-177] that technological limitations at the time led to location information variations of up to 300 meters or more.

GPS 'Too Weak'

“The problem is more of an urban issue, rather than a rural one,” said Gary Parsons, the chief executive officer of NextNav, an indoor location technology vendor. “GPS satellite signals do not get inside buildings. They are too weak,” he said.

“Public safety officials want 50 meters or less accuracy,” said Parsons. “And they want to identify the building and the floor” where an E911 call is being made. “150 meters are roughly two city blocks and you can lose a lot of people in two city blocks.”

In March 2013, the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) published the results of more than two years of research into the issue. The group documented a range of technological solutions that better pinpoint indoor E911 calls by utilizing signals from terrestrial beacon networks, wireless network signal triangulation and software that recognizes local radio frequency signatures, among others. The group analyzed the success of these technologies through national test beds established by wireless carriers to explore those technological solutions that could help public safety officials more accurately locate indoor E911 calls.

The work of the CSRIC, including the results of a recent multi-vendor indoor location test bed, “must be considered in any discussion of indoor location accuracy,” said Scott Bergmann, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA the Wireless Association, in an e-mail statement. “That report makes clear that additional developments are necessary in order to provide actionable location information to public safety,” he said. “We are hopeful that CSRIC's next phase of its test bed initiative will see widespread participation to enable side-by-side comparisons and verifiable data.”

T-Mobile's Vice President of Federal Regulatory Affairs, Kathleen Ham, said the company “shares Acting Chairwoman Clyburn's interest in the development of robust E911 location accuracy technology capable of performing well indoors,” in an e-mail statement. “We welcome the opportunity to participate in the upcoming workshop,” she said. A Sprint spokeswoman said the company “will continue to work with the Commission and plans to participate in the proposed workshop.” Verizon and AT&T did not comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

For more information you can read the congressional letters here: http://op.bna.com/der.nsf/r?Open=sbay-9buqv9 and here: http://op.bna.com/der.nsf/r?Open=sbay-9buqw7.

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