FCC Seeks to Update Wireless 911 Regulations to Help Responders Find Callers

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By Bryce Baschuk  

Jan. 31 --The Federal Communications Commission said wireless companies need new rules to ensure public safety officials are able to accurately locate and help citizens who dial 911 from their mobile phones.

Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said the agency's rules regarding wireless location accuracy need to change to accommodate consumer behavior, according to a Jan. 30 blog entry. Wheeler said the commission will consider a proposed rulemaking at its February meeting to clarify that “wireless providers have to meet certain benchmarks for indoor location accuracy,” and which “proposes other changes to ensure that wireless providers are taking the appropriate steps to deliver accurate location information to 911 call centers,” according to the blog post. Wheeler was the president of CTIA - The Wireless Association from 1992 to 2004.

“When the original 911 rules for wireless providers were first adopted, they were built on the assumption that the primary place consumers would use their wireless phones would be outside,” Wheeler's blog post said. “But today, the vast majority of wireless calls are made from indoors, including 911 calls made from wireless phones. Commercial location-based services are raising consumers' expectations--if a smartphone app can locate them within seconds, why can't a 911 call center?”

According to FCC data, 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 had previously called on the FCC to revise its rules to address the unique problems associated with delivering accurate Enhanced 911 (E911) location information from wireless calls to first responders.

Current Standards Inadequate

It has been more than three years since the FCC last sought to initiate a rulemaking to revise the commission's rules regarding E911 location requirements. Current FCC standards require handset-based location providers to deliver accurate location information within 55 yards of the caller for 67 percent of calls and 164 yards for 95 percent of calls. However, the FCC does not require wireless carriers to identify a 911 caller's precise indoor location.

The Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC), an FCC advisory committee composed of wireless stakeholders, is currently developing test beds to evaluate various indoor location technologies. The test beds will consider a range of technological solutions that can 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's forthcoming work aims to provide the FCC with regular comprehensive, unbiased and actionable data on the efficacy of location technologies, according to a report released in December.

Last year, CSRIC published the results of more than two years of research into the issue. The group concluded that horizontal positional accuracy within 50 meters (55 yards) can provide first responders with meaningful indoor location data in rural and suburban areas. In urban areas, however, more precise location information is required to identify a 911 caller's specific location within buildings, the group said.

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

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