Feds Order Cell Companies to Pinpoint 911 Callers

Wireless carriers will have to provide accurate location data to 911 centers, including for indoor calls.

A Blackberry cell phone is seen at Fixx wireless on November 4, 2013 in Miami, Florida.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
Jan. 29, 2015, 7:01 a.m.

Cel­lu­lar com­pan­ies will have to auto­mat­ic­ally de­liv­er more-ac­cur­ate data about the loc­a­tion of 911 calls un­der reg­u­la­tions ap­proved Thursday.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion un­an­im­ously voted to toughen its 911 loc­a­tion ac­cur­acy rules, in­clud­ing when the caller is in­doors.

Tele­phone com­pan­ies already had to in­form 911 call cen­ters about the loc­a­tion of land­line callers, and there also were fed­er­al stand­ards to en­sure that emer­gency re­spon­ders could find cell-phone callers when they were out­doors. But there had been no re­quire­ments for loc­a­tion ac­cur­acy for in­door 911 cell-phone callers.

With more than 70 per­cent of 911 calls now com­ing from cell phones and two in five U.S. house­holds re­ly­ing only on cell phones, poor loc­a­tion in­form­a­tion has been mak­ing it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for of­fi­cials to re­spond to emer­gen­cies. Find­ing a caller in­side a large, multistory build­ing is a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem.

FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er ar­gued that if people can use a smart­phone app to re­quest a car to pick them up at their door­step, they should be able to count on emer­gency re­spon­ders be­ing able to find them, wherever they are.

“When the un­think­able oc­curs, you want first re­spon­ders to find you — no mat­ter where you are, in­doors or out, and no mat­ter what kind of phone you use to make that call,” FCC Com­mis­sion­er Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel said.

Com­mis­sion­er Mignon Cly­burn only con­curred with the rules, say­ing they should have been tough­er. Wire­less car­ri­ers will have up to three years to meet the strict­est loc­a­tion stand­ards in the new reg­u­la­tions.

The com­mis­sion’s two Re­pub­lic­ans also voted in fa­vor of the new rules. But GOP Com­mis­sion­er Mi­chael O’Ri­elly ex­pressed con­cern that oth­er gov­ern­ment agen­cies could ab­use the loc­a­tion data to mon­it­or Amer­ic­ans.

However, he said, it’s not the FCC’s place to con­sider the sur­veil­lance policies of oth­er agen­cies, and he ex­pressed hope there will be ap­pro­pri­ate safe­guards.

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