FCC tightens location accuracy standards, provides relief for rural settings, inquires into possible additional steps

After two years of reflection on the matter, the FCC has decided to accept an industry/public safety community compromise on E-911 accuracy standards. At the same time, it has proposed to expand the reach of those standards to new categories of service providers while tightening the standards even further.

When last we talked about E-911, the FCC had adopted rules that required wireless carriers to achieve a high level of “ALI” accuracy (the ability to identify the location of a call) at the public safety answering point (PSAP) level. This development came about because the rules required emergency call location information to be provided with a high degree of accuracy (within 100 meters) for 67% of the calls received and within 300 meters for 95% of the calls, but the standard was being diluted by carriers calculating their level of compliance over large areas.

To plug this loophole, the FCC ordained that the requisite degree of reliability now had to be met on a PSAP level rather than the larger geographic areas which the rules previously permitted. This requirement was deemed difficult or impossible of compliance by many in the mobile communications industry. Carriers who used the “network” solution (which relies on triangulation of signals to achieve accuracy) complained that in areas with few cell sites, the necessary triangulation was simply not available. Appeals to the Court were duly filed, but before the Court could rule, the Public Safety community (APCO and NENA) indicated that they were amenable to liberalizing the measuring standard to a county level rather than the PSAP level. Further discussions with the largest carriers resulted in agreement by Public Safety that some additional leeway was appropriate in areas where heavy forestation impeded the ability to get extreme accuracy. Given the growing consensus that the standard which had been adopted might need revision, the FCC sought and was granted a remand from the Court so it could re-visit the issue.

After seeking further input, the FCC basically accepted the consensus of the industry and Public Safety as to what was both feasible and would provide a heightened degree of accuracy for first responders. While we are usually uncomfortable when the FCC lets AT&T, Verizon and a few other large carriers speak for “the industry,” in this case the FCC listened both to the largest carriers and to representatives of smaller carriers who moaned that they did not have the same access to new aGPS equipment as the majors. The resulting decision seems to reasonably reflect the needs and concerns of most parties.

The FCC afforded network-based carriers an unusual degree of flexibility in establishing compliance. They can elect to be measured over either counties or PSAPs in their service areas, whichever they desire. And they can use either network-based accuracy data, handset-based data (after a few years), or a combination of both. To further sweeten the deal, the FCC will permit carriers to exclude from the calculation counties or portions of counties where triangulation is not technically possible. The pertinent counties must be reported in the FCC Docket and sent to Public Safety.

This concession to the laws of physics is huge since the triangulation problem was a major impediment to compliance by rural carriers. In addition, even a network-based carrier may rely on handset-based accuracy data if it has a high degree of aGPS-equipped subscribers (85%) network-wide or if it gives aGPS equipment to subscribers in the area at no charge. Handset-based carriers also got some relief: they can exclude up to 15% of counties or PSAPs whose heavy forestation limits handset location accuracy.

All of this is not to say that the new rules do not impose significant burdens. They certainly do. To wit:

  • Carriers who use the network-based solution must meet the 100 meters/67% of calls metric over 60% of their counties or PSAPs within one year of the effective date of the new rules. The counties included must cover at least 70% of the counties covered by the carrier over its entire network. The 70% requirement is presumably there to preclude manipulation of the data, but the FCC offered no explanation for it whatsoever, so it is unclear whether the reference to a carrier’s “entire network” means its entire nationwide network or its network within the particular call sign being measured. Within three years, carriers must meet this metric in 70% of the counties or PSAPs, with 80% of the counties in the entire network being included. Finally, in five years carriers must meet the metric in 100% of the counties or PSAPs. At this point, handset-based accuracy data may also be used to demonstrate compliance, on the assumption that aGPS devices will be relatively widely available by that time.
  • Network-based carriers must meet the 300 meters/90%-of-calls metric on a three year – five year – eight year timetable. Note that the metric for this level of accuracy has been reduced from 95% of calls to 90%.
  • Meanwhile, handset-based carriers have two years to meet an accuracy metric of 50 meters/67% of calls and 150 meters/80% of calls. By year eight they must reach 150 meters accuracy for 90% of calls.
  • No self-respecting FCC regulation would be complete without a reporting requirement. Here the FCC is requiring the reporting of “confidence and uncertainty” data at the request of any PSAP. We appreciate this requirement because a fragile balance of confidence and uncertainty so defines the human condition. The precise nature of this data is notably unclear from the FCC’s order, leaving us somewhat on the uncertainty side of the equation in this regard.
  • Finally, the FCC has clarified that the accuracy metrics noted above only apply to outdoor measurements. But how will the measurement process know whether any particular call originated from indoors or outdoors, and therefore whether it should be included in the accuracy calculations?

Having adopted these requirements, the FCC issued a companion notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) inquiring into a number of important issues:

  • Should there be single accuracy metric given the accelerating convergence of handset and network technology?
  • Can the level of accuracy required be stepped up even higher given the new technologies?
  • Should “Z-axis” (i.e., height above ground data) be added to the location requirement?
  • More broadly, should the Commission extend the current VoIP ALI rules to a wider universe of service providers?   The current rules require VoIP users to self-report their location since there is no other way for the network to know where a computer happens to be located. And even this requirement applies only where the customer originates and terminates calls to the PSTN in real time. But as the use of computers and computer-like devices with voice capability spreads, so too does the need to be able to locate 911 calls originated from such devices. The Commission recognizes that such an expansion of the E-911 process would be problematic since the new computing devices are themselves mobile – self-reporting one’s whereabouts would be impractical and would defeat the purpose of “automatic” location identification. This inquiry is plainly at its inception, but it will become more important as all communications move to an Internet-based model.

The deadlines for comments and reply comments have not yet been set. They will depend on the date the NPRM is published in the Federal Register (comments will be due 60 days after publication, replies 90 days after publication). Check back here for updates.