In an Order adopted July 17th, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) took another step in its mission to make the precise location of wireless emergency calls more and more granular, to help emergency responders to determine the location of a caller who is injured or held captive and unable to communicate his or her location. There are two types of technologies for automated location – a network-based system that locates a caller by comparing signals received at multiple cell sites and a handset-based system that depends on location information transmitted by the caller’s device. While these technologies are still evolving, they have advanced enough to allow the FCC to mandate implementation. The rules now in effect require horizontal locations (the x-y axes) to be identified with considerable precision (within 50 meters 67% of the time for network-based technologies and within 150 meters 90% of the time for handset technologies). More recently the FCC has trained its sights on the thornier issue of how to locate an emergency caller in a multi-story building, where knowing only the street address is not enough to find a caller quickly (a topic we covered last year). The GPS and triangulation methods that worked fine for the x-y axes fall short when multiple stories of buildings are involved.

Despite concerns expressed by the industry that the technology necessary to identify the so-called “z-axis” – the vertical position of the caller – is not quite ready for prime time, the FCC has required that nationwide mobile service providers be capable of locating emergency calls on the z-axis with an accuracy of 3 meters for 80% of calls made from z-axis-capable devices in the top 25 markets by April 3, 2021 and in the top 50 markets by April 3, 2023. In the new Order, the FCC has tweaked the rule to permit providers to meet that standard in for 80% of only buildings that are more than three stories high. This change sensibly focuses service on the buildings that most require z-axis information to locate a caller quickly rather than imposing requirements for coverage based on bare population since many people are located in areas without tall buildings. It also permits the resources of the two companies (NetxtNav and Polaris) that currently offer z-axis precision services to mobile service providers to be focused on geographic areas with lots of tall buildings. This technology determines height by relying on barometric sensors, which the FCC says are present in most recently sold handsets.

Secondly, the Commission is allowing nationwide providers the option of meeting the precision option by a handset-only solution, thereby making network upgrades unnecessary if handset solutions work. As with the x-y axes, handset providers like Apple and Android have developed software-based solutions that can locate vertical position with the requisite accuracy. Banking on the adoption of this technology in most smartphones by 2025, the FCC is requiring z-axis capability to be provided by all nationwide providers by that date, if not sooner. The major carriers expressed concern that the 3 meter/80% of calls metric would be difficult to meet on a nationwide basis, but the FCC rejected those concerns.

Finally, the FCC is giving non-nationwide service providers an extra year, until April of 2026, to meet the 3 meter/80% of calls standard in their networks. The expectation is that handset technology will have been so widely evolved by then that up-to-date handset availability will have reached all markets and smaller handset buyers. Like the major carriers, the non-nationwide providers will have to submit a host of certifications, live call data, confidence/uncertainty data, and other reports to the regulators in Washington.

The technology now being implemented reports geographic coordinates and elevation data, which must be interpreted by Public Safety Answering Points. The ultimate goal is so-called “dispatchable location” solutions, which will translate data into street address, floor numbers, and more. That technology is also coming of age. We can, therefore, expect that floor numbers and even apartment numbers will be available to emergency responders in the near future, but the FCC is only requiring this degree of accuracy if it is technically feasible and cost-effective.