The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ordered the nation’s wireless carriers to find a way, during the next five years, to enable police, fire, and other public safety first responders to trace the exact physical location of anyone using a cell phone to call 911 for help. The wireless industry says the requirement is technologically impossible to meet.
“We can only bend the laws of physics so much,” said Joe Farren, assistant vice president for public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Organization, an industry group for wireless service providers. “There’s no known technological solution for meeting the FCC’s mandate.”
The FCC’s order, given in September, requires wireless carriers to meet “location accuracy requirements” at the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) service-area level by September 11, 2012. A PSAP is a local 911 center.
These requirements are part of the Enhanced 911 (E-911) program, which wireless carriers participate in because of government mandate. E-911 requires wireless carriers and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers to connect 911 calls to emergency services.
The new rule essentially means wireless carriers must be able to meet locating criteria for virtually all the PSAPs in their service areas, not just those in, say, large urban areas. Critics charge wireless carriers have polished their E-911 compliance rates by citing numbers achieved across the largest service areas.
In adopting the new location accuracy rule, the FCC said it is “advancing policies, rules, and initiatives that support the efficient and reliable transmission of meaningful automatic location information from wireless 911 callers to PSAPs to better ensure rapid emergency response and save lives.”
The FCC claims widespread support from the public safety community. The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) called the FCC’s decision “a step in the right direction.” While “appreciating the challenges that carriers will face in meeting a PSAP level requirement,” NENA said it believes the FCC’s interim benchmarks and goals are achievable.
The wireless industry differs. The Rural Cellular Association and Verizon Wireless filed a joint statement saying “technology is not currently available to allow carriers to satisfy accuracy mandates on the level desired by public safety groups.”
Farren acknowledged E-911 to be an “excellent service” and pointed out the current E-911 system does do a good job of locating a wireless user much of the time–but not in every location and rarely to the accuracy level consumers might expect.
The physical features of a location, such as whether it’s wooded or mountainous, can affect wireless signals. Wireless carriers’ technology also differs in its ability to triangulate a caller’s location, especially in rural areas where there are not as many cell towers. Even in an urban area, the E-911 system may determine a wireless caller is within a specific building but not be able to identify the precise floor or exact office location.
“We shouldn’t create unrealistic expectations in the minds of consumers that the system will be better than it is,” said Farren.
To ensure carriers meet PSAP-level location accuracy requirements, the FCC established a series of annual benchmarks, including interim progress reports and requirements to measure compliance on progressively smaller geographic levels until the PSAP-level standards are met.
For network-based location technologies, the requirement is location accuracy within 100 meters (300 feet) for 67 percent of calls and 300 meters for 95 percent of calls. For handset-based technologies, the standards are 50 meters for 67 percent of calls and 150 meters for 95 percent. For the remaining 5 percent, a location estimate must be provided to the PSAP.
Sharon J. Watson ([email protected]) writes from Sugar Land, Texas.