FCC commissioners today approved a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that tentatively concludes wireless and voice-over-IP (VoIP) location accuracy and reliability standards should be based on performance within each public safety answering point (PSAP) service area, not averaged on a statewide or multistate basis.

The FCC’s tentative conclusion echoes the position of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), which recently released a report demonstrating that automatic location information associated with 911 calls from wireless carriers’ customers often was inaccurate in rural PSAP service areas.

Under the FCC current rules, wireless carriers are required to meet location and reliability benchmarks, but carriers are allowed to average the results over large regions. As a result, strong location accuracy statistics in a populous urban area can let a carrier offset poor location performance in rural areas, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said.

“Multistate 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.

“Quite simply, providing location accuracy information on a multi-state or state-wide basis is not enough. It does not provide public safety with the information it needs to do its job effectively. 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.”

Typically, cellular carriers today use handset-based GPS technologies that do not work well inside urban buildings or network-based triangulation that does not produce accurate results in rural areas, where towers are scarce. In the NPRM, the commission stated its intent to examine methods to enhance in-building location accuracy and the use of hybrid solutions that might overcome the limitations of existing location technologies.

In addition, the NPRM will seek comment on the FCC’s tentative conclusions that wireless carriers should test location accuracy regularly and deliver the information to PSAPs, and that VoIP providers must employ automatic location technology that meets the same standards as those applied to wireless carriers.

Officials for leading public-safety communications organizations welcomed the FCC action. National Emergency Number Association President Jason Barbour said the rapid growth of wireless and VoIP communications means it is critical for PSAPs to have accurate location information when 911 calls are made.

“We look forward to participating in a discussion on how best to achieve the goal of providing the most accurate information possible to 9-1-1 telecommunicators across the country,” Barbour said in a prepared statement. “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.”

APCO President Wanda McCarley echoed this sentiment.

"We applaud the FCC for today's action which should lead to improved location accuracy for wireless 9-1-1 calls, allowing for more efficient and rapid responses to emergencies," McCarley said in a prepared statement.