911 Cell Phone Lobby Could Endanger More Lives


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In a further update to recent frustration with emergency location data failure, lobbying from the largest carriers and their beneficiaries has resulted in a new piece of legislation. However, it is a diluted and ineffective version of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s original legislation requiring carriers to deliver on improving location accuracy in emergency situations. FCC officials who were involved in the process, candidly expressed their opinions on the recent developments under the condition of anonymity. “[This] is a perfect example of how big money and big corporations can make it appear there’s been a democratic and open process, but in fact they’ve corrupted the science and bought off the very organizations that are supposed to be a watchdog in protecting the public. And in this case, the result means that more people will die,” one official said.

This piece of legislation can be traced back to February 2014, when Wheeler proposed explicit rules that required carriers to use new technology that would allow operators and first responders to accurately locate people even if they were indoors or amongst tall buildings. Namely, carriers would have to improve location accuracy to within 50 meters 67 percent of the time in two years and 80 percent of the time in five years. Carriers would also have to accurately provide vertical location within three meters 67 percent of the time in three years, and 80 percent in five years. To put this into perspective, a study of 911 calls in five California cities shows that accurate location data was received by dispatchers only 20 to 49 percent of the time. These aggressive measures would reportedly save 10,120 lives and $92 billion a year if emergency responders reached callers one minute faster—but these numbers would come at a cost for carriers—$25 million a year.

Carriers called the requirements “not yet technically or commercially feasible” and proposed timeframes “wholly unrealistic.” The FCC recently passed regulations based on a plan called the Roadmap, written by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, designed to reduce required percentages of accurately located callers and extend deadlines. The largest carriers displayed their long-held influence on Washington by donating millions of dollars to, and recruiting organizations like the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and National Emergency Number Association (NENA) to file comments to the FCC who is legally obligated to read every comment on legislation. As a result, the watered-down version of the requirements was passed after months of lobbying—all this over a yearly $25 million expenditure for carriers that accounts for 0.3 to 0.4 percent of their yearly profits.

The devastating part of the location issue is that technology does currently exist that allows mobile devices to accurately provide location data. Applications like Uber and Facebook are able to precisely locate users, yet hundreds of people that could have been saved by first responders die every year as a result of a faulty system. Regardless of who is to blame, carriers, operators and the FCC must cooperate to reach an agreement to improve emergency location data processes. Many projects have been developed with this goal in mind, including improvement of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, updating outdated maps, moving from analog systems at numerous call centers into single centralized Internet-based networks, and development of location technologies. Still, more aggressive time horizons and rate requirements would expedite the application of these efforts. The recent FCC requirements are unfortunately looser than they should be.

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