FCC Builds on Rules for Transmitting Vertical Location Data for e911 Calls

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Sparks flew virtually as the FCC voted Thursday on improving vertical location information for first responders to a 911 call from a cell phone. The issue is especially important in a multi-story building. Changing the information carriers must provide 911 call centers will save lives, supporters agreed. But at issue is whether carriers can update their information by the FCC’s deadline.

The Commission’s Enhanced 911 rules require wireless carriers to transmit to 911 call centers information on the location of wireless 911 calls. They obligate wireless providers to meet an increasingly stringent series of location accuracy benchmarks in accordance with a timetable, including providing the caller’s dispatchable location (such as the street address and apartment number) or coordinate-based vertical “z-axis” location. In November 2019, the Commission established the z-axis location accuracy metric as plus or minus three meters relative to the handset for 80 percent of indoor wireless 911 calls. Nationwide wireless providers must meet April 2021 and April 2023 deadlines for deploying z-axis technology, which must comply with the metric for accuracy, in the top 25 and 50 markets, respectively. 

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said z-axis technology is not yet commercially deployed. Concerning the implementation deadlines the agency is upholding, he said: “Today, we double down and require z-axis nationwide by 2025 as if the ultimate remedy requires just one more mandate. We now have wireless providers and manufacturers expressing concerns about the direction in which we are headed.”

“These are the companies that we’ll rely on to make it work and they seem to have serious doubts,” said O’Rielly. “The handset based solutions that will facilitate nationwide deployment are less accurate than the network based systems this commission has been considering.”

But he explained the item voted on Thursday provides more flexibility. The goal should be to get what’s actually required working, before making more rules, O’Rielly emphasized.

Commissioner Brendan Carr agreed, noting entrepreneurs are focused on solving the problem with software that leverages device signals. “Two companies,” Google and Apple, have or plan to demonstrate “how using air pressure can predict the height of a call that’s originated,” said Carr.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said nine months ago the agency adopted policies to improve 911 wireless call location for the 50 largest metros. “I called for us to go further and make them apply nationwide. As I said at the time there are office parks, townhomes and other multi-story structures in rural areas, too.” 

While yesterday’s decision does that, the 911 call information being sent to 911 call centers is still too complicated and not in a format that’s actionable, Rosenworcel pointed out. “We need a 911 system that works simply for all, all of the time. Today, 911 location information that accompanies your call doesn’t distinguish between your device or service plan. This is the way it should be.”

In the future, she said: “In the best case [scenario,] a lot of people are going to miss this one, never download it or respond to the fine print in a service notice. Now, full location information only accompanies that call if you opt into the new system or bought the right phone. That is not an outcome I can accept,” Rosenworcel said as she voted partially for and partially against, the item.

In the Order adopted Thursday, the Commission affirmed the 2021 and 2023 z-axis requirements, rejecting a proposal to weaken them. The FCC added a new requirement that nationwide wireless carriers deploy z-axis technology nationwide by April 2025. Non-nationwide wireless carriers get an extra year to do so within their service areas. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told reporters after the meeting the agency’s reaffirmation of the deadlines will, “ensure that consumers and emergency personnel in both rural and urban America, not just large metropolitan areas, have the benefit of location accuracy by a date certain.”

To give wireless providers additional flexibility in meeting these requirements while still advancing critical public safety objectives, the Commission allowed providers to deploy technologies that focus on multi-story buildings, where vertical location information is most vital to first responders. The Commission also required wireless providers, beginning in January 2022, to provide dispatchable location information with wireless 911 calls when it’s technically feasible and cost-effective to do so, to promote consistency in the 911 rules across technology platforms.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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