FCC commissioners should initiate a proceeding to assess technologies that are designed to provide more accurate location data of wireless callers to the 911 system, according to most panelists testifying yesterday before a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee on the subject.

At issue is a longstanding problem for public-safety. Traditional wireline telephony calls to 911 centers automatically include an exact address location of the caller, but about 70% of all 911 calls come from wireless devices, as many households are declining wireline service. And location information associated with wireless calls—where available at all—is only required to be accurate within 50 meters, at best.

“I think most consumers would be surprised to know that, if you’re calling from a wireless phone, the 911 system may not be able to locate exactly where that person in need is,” subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said during the hearing, which was webcast. “I think most consumers would be alarmed if they understood this, and I think the problem is especially true for phone calls made from indoors. It’s time for an upgrade, and it’s time that we recognize that there are just too many stories affecting too many individuals that have led all too often to unnecessary suffering, and we need the ability to fix this.

“We must go to a more accurate, more timely and more robust system ... I believe it’s time for the FCC to take concrete steps to make sure that all wireless callers can be located by 911 centers, and I call on the FCC today to initiate a proceeding to make that happen.”

Gigi Smith, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), testified that her public-safety answering point (PSAP) has seen an increase in the number of 911 calls from wireless phones, but the

“consumer expectations of the location capabilities of their devices do not match our actual experience in the PSAP.” Because wireless 911 location information is not exact, call-takers first seek location information from a wireless caller before getting details about the emergency situation, she said.

“If the caller cannot provide his or her address, then we question the caller in detail. However, this can be time-consuming, and 911 callers can be panicked, scared, injured or otherwise unable to speak or provide correct information,” Smith said.

Today, location information is gathered primarily through satellite-based GPS systems, which deliver the latitude and longitude—or XY—coordinates of the caller. While this is effective outdoors in open areas, it does not work well indoors, because the satellite cannot get a clear connection to the device.

Another indoor problem involves multi-story facilities, such as apartment buildings or office towers. Even if the XY location information is accurate, it does not provide information indicating the vertical location—or Z coordinate—of the caller, so first responders know which floor needs to be accessed. This is more important today than ever before, because so many people do not have landline phones or call from their wireless phones from such multi-story structures.

“We’ve got to have faster location capabilities,” Trey Forgety, director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), testified during the hearing. “But, moreover, to deal with the realities of how wireless is used today—indoors, in cities and in tall buildings with multiple floors—we have to have the ability to locate people precisely, and that means down to the room level and the floor level within a large structure."