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FCC Calls for Greater Accuracy in 911 Call Locations

Although 7 out of 10 emergency calls are made from cellphones, the location data sent to help 911 responders go to the right place is notoriously inaccurate. In response to an outcry from members of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission is trying to fix the problem. But it’s going to be a slow process.

Last month, the five commissioners voted unanimously to adopt rules requiring cellphone providers to gradually improve the location data they transmit to responders when someone calls 911 from a mobile phone. The final rules are a compromise that gives the providers longer to comply than they would have had under a proposal the FCC issued a year ago. Law enforcement groups and advocates for victims of crimes pushed for a quicker timetable, but the cellphone companies and two Republican commissioners on the panel said the initial timeline, which required compliance within five years, was too aggressive given the existing technology.

It’s particularly difficult for responders to find people who have called 911 from their cellphones in tall buildings. Often, the data they receive gets them to the building, but they have no idea which apartment or office suite the caller is in.

The new rules aim to fix the problem by requiring providers to transmit location data that includes both horizontal and vertical information. Cellphone companies will have to provide horizontal data, accurate within 50 meters, for 40 percent of wireless 911 calls within two years and 80 percent within six years. They’ll have to develop systems for providing vertical location information within three years and provide accurate vertical data in the top 25 cellular markets within six years and 50 markets within eight years. That should go a long way, since most of the tall buildings are in major cities.

To determine how well they’re doing, the FCC is requiring cellphone providers to give the agency quarterly reports on the 911 calls they transmit in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, Philadelphia and Manhattan, as well as their surrounding areas.

Smaller regional providers will have a little longer to comply with the rules.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the regulations are just a start. “We are establishing a floor, not a ceiling,” he said. “We should not be satisfied with a situation where Uber can consistently find a user’s house via an app, but the EMT’s location fix is within half a football field 80 percent of the time.”

Still, the adoption of rules marks a rare moment of bipartisan agreement at the FCC, which is wracked with infighting between the three Democratic commissioners, led by Wheeler, and the two Republicans over how far the agency should go in regulating the Internet in order to prevent Internet service providers from charging content carriers to deliver their Web pages, and in pressuring the providers to deploy fast broadband access to rural areas.

Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner, said the proposed 911 rules were “impractical and unrealistic,” but said the final compromise was achievable.

Urban Interest

The issue is of keen interest to members of Congress, especially those representing urban areas. Last year, for instance, Pennsylvania’s senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Patrick J. Toomey, wrote to Wheeler urging him to get rules in place. They cited a 2013 FCC report that acknowledged 2 out of 3 emergency cellphone calls placed in the Delaware County suburbs of Philadelphia gave inaccurate location information to responders. The data was provided after the director of the county’s emergency services complained.

The problem goes beyond Pennsylvania. Two years ago, the California chapter of the National Emergency Number Association, which represents 911 dispatchers, looked at emergency calls in five sections of the state, including San Francisco and San Jose, and found location information was inaccurate more than half of the time and that it was bad in 4 out of 5 cases in San Francisco.

In addition, the group found location accuracy had declined since 2008, in some cases markedly. The report said the percentage of calls with accurate location data from AT&T phones had dropped by two-thirds in five years, while T-Mobile was providing location data only 20 percent of the time, down from 50 percent.

The cellphone providers said they were providing the required data but that it sometimes didn’t transmit immediately and that emergency responders needed to keep trying to pull it up.

As the FCC took comments on its proposed rules last year, a number of members weighed in, arguing for quick action, including Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Charles E. Schumer of New York and Republican Rep. Peter T. King of New York.

As the new rules are implemented, the FCC advises consumers to check with their wireless providers to make sure the phones they buy can transmit location data to emergency responders and to make sure they tell dispatchers where they are when they call 911.

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