FCC Rules to Increase Accuracy of 911 Cell Phone Caller Location

The ubiquity of cellphones and advancements in GPS technology may lead you to believe that in an emergency you can be found anywhere at anytime. You would be mistaken.

Figuring out and transmitting the exact location of a cell phone remains difficult for 911 systems. GPS location technology is not always precise or available, and callers may hang up or not know where they are located.

An article in Governing reports the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued rules to address these shortcomings by compelling 911 centers and telecom companies to improve the availability and accuracy of location information by certain target dates:

Under the new rules, carriers will have to provide caller location info within 50 meters 80 percent of the time by 2021, along with vertical location information — is the caller in the basement or on the 22nd floor? — that would have to be in place in top markets by 2023.

Critics have derided the rules, calling for shorter timelines and targets specific to calls placed indoors, which lack location information much more frequently than calls placed outdoors with a clear view of the sky. Originally, the FCC had proposed rules with a much more aggressive timeline. But telecom companies succeeded in lobbying against the proposals, arguing they relied on expensive and unproven technology. The revised rules were developed in agreement with the nation’s four largest wireless carriers, along with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which represents dispatchers, supervisors and private-sector service providers. “We would have liked to have seen a more compressed timetable,” says NENA CEO Brian Fontes, “but reality isn’t going to allow for it.”

An article in The Atlantic highlights the difficulties of tracking cell phone calls in more depth:

Tracing a landline call to an exact location doesn’t require complex technology. The 911 call centers have databases of every landline phone number in their area, and the street address associated with each one. In the earlier days of 911, locating a caller was as easy as drawing up a document and running a basic search.

Cellphones made the process much more complicated. Like landlines, each cellphone has an owner and a billing address—but that address tells you virtually nothing about where the call is coming from. In the early ‘90s, with more and more emergency calls coming in from cellphones, it became clear than 911 call centers were going to need advanced, location-based technology to find people.

In 1992, the FCC created a committee to figure out a solution. But the committee members failed to predict just how ubiquitous cellphones would become. Brian Fontes, the CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), says that most of the early cellphone-tracking methods—most of which are still in use today—focused on locating people outside, with the assumption that indoor calls would come from a landline.

Calls placed on cellphones bounce off of the nearest cellphone tower, which directs them to the closest emergency-call center. But calls can be intercepted in unpredictable ways. When a lot of calls are being made at once, there’s a greater chance that the towers become overwhelmed, meaning some calls will be picked up by a tower farther away.

For more information on the new rules and the state of 911 technology read the full articles in Governing and The Atlantic.

Advancements in 911 technology and other innovative public safety tools will be discussed at the MACo Winter Conference session entitled  The New Blue: Tools, Technology & Transparency in Modern Policing”. This session will be held from 9:00 am – 10:15 am on Thursday, December 10, 2015.

The MACo Winter Conference will be held December 9-11, 2015 at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Hotel in Cambridge. This year’s conference theme is “Mission: Public Safety.”

Learn more about MACo’s Winter Conference:

Questions? Contact Meetings & Events Director Virginia White.


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