FCC Gets ‘Vertical’ With 911 Location Data

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More than 80 percent of 911 calls today are made from wireless phones. The FCC has been modernizing its 911 location accuracy rules, and Friday proposed updating them to make it easier to locate callers in multi-story buildings. The proposal would help 911 call centers identify the floor level where the call originated.

The debate grew spirited at times, and vote split along party lines.

A landline automatically sends data containing the caller’s address to 911. Callers expect the same kind of accuracy when they use a cell phone to call 911. The FCC’s Enhanced 911 location accuracy rules, require wireless providers to meet an increasingly stringent series of location accuracy benchmarks, including providing the caller’s “dispatchable” location (such as the street address and apartment number), or a vertical location on a phased-in basis, beginning in April 2121.

On Friday, the Commission proposed a vertical (or “z-axis”) location accuracy metric of plus or minus three meters above or below the phone for 80 percent of indoor wireless 911 calls.   

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said three meters seems to strike the right balance. The original proposal was five meters, however public safety experts rejected that. “They argued they need to get to the right floor the first time,” Commissioner Brendan Carr said. O’Rielly added that early test results don’t support two meters, so three was a compromise.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dissented, arguing that three meters isn’t precise enough. She also thinks the lead time is too long. “I think we should be able to do it in less time across the country. We should choose standards that, without fail, provide a location.” Rosenworcel relayed a story of a woman in New York City who called 911 from her apartment five years ago. Because she was having a stroke, her words were slurred and she couldn’t give the 911 operator her location. It took first responders eight hours to find her, according to Rosenworcel.

New Commissioner Geoffrey Starks agreed, saying: “People need solutions that get them help, not close to them, but where they are. This leaves about a 10-foot margin of error, which can send first responders a floor above or below you.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the item has the support of first responders such as fire departments. However, he agrees “a more stringent proposal” is justified.

The three Republicans voted for the change, while Democratic Commissioner Rosenworcel dissented. Fellow Democrat Starks split his vote, approving in part and differing with the other part. He had questions about whether Lifeline phones can provide location data and how the agency will require carriers to secure the sensitive consumer location data.  Comments? Email Us.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

March 18, 2019

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