FCC Tries to Help Emergency Responders Find 911 Cell-Phone Callers

Carriers would have to provide more accurate information to 911 centers.

A picture taken on October 12, 2011 in the French western city of Rennes shows (FromL) a Samsung phone, a Blackberry phone and an Iphone 4.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
Feb. 20, 2014, 10:58 a.m.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion voted Thursday to move ahead with a pro­pos­al to re­quire cell-phone car­ri­ers to provide more ac­cur­ate in­form­a­tion about the loc­a­tion of 911 calls.

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

With more than 70 per­cent of 911 calls now com­ing from cell phones, poor loc­a­tion in­form­a­tion is mak­ing it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for of­fi­cials to re­spond to emer­gen­cies. Find­ing a caller in­side of a large multistory build­ing is a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem, the com­mis­sion found.

The pro­pos­al would re­quire car­ri­ers to loc­ate 911 callers with­in 50 meters of their loc­a­tion ho­ri­zont­ally and with­in three-meter ver­tic­ally, which would es­sen­tially al­low emer­gency re­spon­ders to know which floor of a build­ing the call was com­ing from.

The car­ri­ers would have to meet the ho­ri­zont­al stand­ard ac­cur­acy for 67 per­cent of calls with­in two years and 80 per­cent of calls with five years. The car­ri­ers would have three years to meet the ver­tic­al ac­cur­acy re­quire­ment for 67 per­cent calls and five years for 80 per­cent of calls.

Ajit Pai and Mi­chael O’Re­illy, the two Re­pub­lic­ans on the five-mem­ber com­mis­sion, ap­plauded the new stand­ards but wor­ried that the com­mis­sion was set­ting an un­real­ist­ic timeline.

“Car­ri­ers can­not be­gin to de­ploy a tech­no­logy solu­tion that does not yet ex­ist,” Pai said. “And the pub­lic should not be led to rely on a prom­ise that can­not be kept.”

CTIA, the lob­by­ing group for cell-phone car­ri­ers, said its com­pan­ies “stand ready to work” with the com­mis­sion but urged the agency to pur­sue “re­quire­ments that are groun­ded in veri­fied data, not as­pir­a­tion­al tar­get”‘set­ting.”

FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er had little sym­pathy for the Re­pub­lic­an and in­dustry con­cerns.

“Hey, we’re deal­ing with hu­man life,” he said.

Wheel­er ar­gued that it’s “nev­er wrong to over­reach” on pub­lic safety, but he said the com­mis­sion will re­main flex­ible if tech­no­lo­gic­al prob­lems arise.

The FCC will re­view com­ments on the pro­pos­al be­fore vot­ing on fi­nal reg­u­la­tions. 

The com­mis­sion ad­vanced the pro­pos­al after Demo­crat­ic Rep. Anna Eshoo and Re­pub­lic­an Rep. John Shimkus sent a let­ter to the agency last month call­ing for bet­ter loc­a­tion ac­cur­acy on 911 calls. 

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