Providers of mobile wireless and nomadic voice-over-IP offerings should be more consistent in providing the location of customers calling 911 for emergency services, the FCC tentatively concluded in a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM.

Approved in May, the NPRM calls for new location standards to be based on performance within the territory served by each public-safety answering point (PSAP) instead of the regional and multi-state benchmarking allowed under current FCC rules governing wireless E911 calls. It also states that wireless carriers should test location accuracy regularly and provide PSAPs with the test results.

Under the FCC's existing rules, carriers have to meet location and reliability standards, but they can average the results from multiple service areas, which often paints a less-than-accurate picture of the carrier's compliance.

For example, when carriers use network-based triangulation technology, the location information is more accurate when there are more cell sites on a per-mile basis. On the contrary, handset-based location solutions using GPS technology work well in rural locations but not as well in urban settings because satellites have a difficult time receiving signals if the caller is inside a multi-story facility, such as an office building.

Given the importance of 911 calls, greater accuracy nationwide is needed, so public-safety agencies can make better deployment decisions when responding to an emergency, said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

“Multi-state or statewide averaging can mask the reliability of 911 outside of large urban areas,” he said. “For example, meeting location accuracy standards on average in the entire state of New York by providing enhanced 911 capability in Manhattan does not help first responders in Buffalo.”

Indeed, a recently released study conducted by APCO revealed that almost none of the seven rural PSAPs studied received location information from wireless carriers that meets the FCC standard. However, because the location data from these PSAPs can be averaged with statistics from areas where their solutions are more accurate, none of the carriers tested failed to comply with the FCC's location rules.

“Quite simply, providing location accuracy information on a multi-state or statewide basis is not enough. It does not provide public safety with the information it needs to do its job effectively,” Martin said. “The tentative conclusion in today's NPRM to require location accuracy measurement at the PSAP-level will help provide necessary — and possibly life-saving — information to our first responders.”

And PSAP-level benchmarking likely will not be reserved for mobile wireless carriers. The NPRM also tentatively concludes that nomadic VoIP service providers will be required to comply with the same location accuracy and reliability rules as mobile wireless carriers.

In addition to seeking comment on these tentative conclusions, the NPRM also is soliciting input on new location technologies that could enhance in-building location accuracy, including hybrid solutions that combine the best aspects of the network-based and handset-based location approaches.

Members of the 911 community applauded the measure, with Mary Boyd — vice president of government and external affairs for 911 vendor giant Intrado — calling it “one of the most important” emergency-calling proceedings conducted by the FCC in years, while speaking during a session at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference in Charlotte, N.C., last month.

NENA President Jason Barbour echoed that sentiment, noting that the rapid growth of wireless and VoIP communications means it is more critical than ever for PSAPs to have accurate location information when 911 calls are made using these technologies.

“The focus on this important topic is long overdue, and it is essential that all parties involved from industry and public safety work together to fully understand what is achievable today, where we want to be and how best to get there,” Barbour said in a statement.


Tentative conclusions from the FCC's E911 NPRM
1 Wireless E911 location accuracy should be measure on a PSAP service-territory basis.
2 A unified accuracy test should exist, instead of one for handset-based technologies and another for network-based technologies.
3 VoIP providers should adhere to the same standards as cellular carriers.
4 Wireless providers should comply with a mandatory testing schedule and provide results to PSAPs.
5 FCC engineers will evaluate methods to determine in-building location and the potential for hybrid technologies to provide location information.
Source: FCC