It's been a long road for wireless enhanced 911. When the FCC first mandated that commercial wireless operators must deploy location technology to pinpoint callers dialing 911 from their cell phones in 1996, those operators were pulled along kicking and screaming. They fought for waivers to the deployment deadlines — and still missed many deadlines, even after getting those waivers. Meanwhile, public-safety answering points, or PSAPs, complained about operators' lack of responsiveness, and the FCC levied millions of dollars in fines.

More than 10 years later, operators are quite amicable, coverage is wide, and many large PSAPs are running smoothly, but wireless 911 implementations are far from perfect. Location accuracy remains elusive. And it’s a critical issue considering the fact that the majority of 911 calls are coming from wireless phones these days. Emergency call takers often must get as much detailed information as they can from the caller because wireless 911 location data isn’t very reliable.

Last year the FCC adopted a stricter 911 location accuracy standard, despite the fact that wireless operators objected because of the expense, but a federal court overturned the rules. In July, NENA and APCO met halfway with the country’s two largest operators, AT&T and Verizon, stating they would accept more relaxed accuracy requirements. They accepted AT&T’s proposal for network-based accuracy requirements and Verizon’s proposal for handset-based accuracy levels. In short, rather than requiring operators to pinpoint callers at the PSAP level, NENA and APCO conceded to accuracy at the county level. And thus it appeared that the wireless industry and the public-safety community were on track for a resolution of the issue.

But not so fast, say other operators. They argue that what AT&T and Verizon have come up with might not be economically or technically feasible for them. In short, “there is no evidence that one size fits all,” said U.S. Cellular in its comment filing with the FCC. T-Mobile and the Rural Cellular Association (RCA), whose members use network-based E911 solutions, filed joint comments stressing the fact that AT&T’s proposal “must be modified in order to be potentially technically and economically feasible for carriers other than AT&T.”

T-Mobile is rolling out a 3G network, which can take advantage of assisted GPS handset-based 911 solutions, but is lagging behind AT&T’s rollout by about two years, (AT&T’s proposal takes into account the use of both network-based solutions and A-GPS.) Consequently, T-Mobile and the RCA argue that operators rolling out 3G now are at a disadvantage when it comes to the new proposed E911 guidelines.

The arguments illustrate what the FCC has had to do all along when it comes to E911—balance the commercial interests of wireless operators with the need for enhanced capabilities that will save the lives of wireless users. The good news is that, despite the bickering, operators are closer than ever to coming to a consensus with public safety.

The initial agreement between public safety, AT&T and Verizon hammered out in July was a big step toward cooperation, and the objections coming from other operators don’t change the ultimate objective—that all carriers will be held to a county-level accuracy standard—but only modify the timeframes and path for the compliance. Moreover, public safety and the wireless industry now agree on the need for an Enhanced 911 Technical Advisory Group to hammer out the differences.

The new E911 accuracy requirements coming from the FCC won’t please everyone, but I believe they can come close enough to where the solution takes a thoughtful account to the needs of both operators and public safety. The hard work has already been done in terms of a general consensus, and we don’t have to see operators kicking and screaming throughout the process like we did in 1996.

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