FCC moves ahead with mobile 911 standards

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to move ahead with plans to improve the ability of emergency responders to locate people who call 911 from their cellphones.

The FCC will continue with an agency process that would require wireless companies such as Verizon and AT&T to provide emergency response centers with detailed location information when a subscriber calls 911 from within a building.

There are currently rules in place regarding how accurately and quickly emergency responders must locate and send help for landline and outdoor wireless 911 calls. 

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“But if you call 911 from a wireless phone indoors, you should cross your fingers and hope and pray, because no location accuracy standards apply,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. 

“This is an unacceptable gap in our policies. But today we do something about it.”

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the vote is a step to ensure that “the ability to summon help keeps pace with technology.”

In their statements on the agency’s vote, commissioners pointed to recent congressional pressure to improve location accuracy for wireless 911 callers.

Last month, Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.) sent a letter to Wheeler asking him to begin a process at the agency to increase standards.

Also last month, the Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications held a hearing on the issue where Democrats pushed for new regulations that would improve location accuracy for 911 calls made from cellphones.

Rosenworcel thanked Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — chairman of the communications subcommittee — for being “a champion on this issue.”

The commission’s Republicans — Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly — expressed concern that the agency would be imposing aggressive standards and timelines on the companies that are beyond the companies' technical capabilities.

“The Commission’s rules should be more than aspirational,” Pai said.

The agency’s process “imposes legally binding obligations on regulated entities,” he said. “It is unfair to saddle them with obligations that cannot be met.”

Pai also asked the Commission to refrain from bringing enforcement actions against companies that are “making their best efforts” to rollout certified technologies that would improve location accuracy for wireless 911 calls.

O’Rielly encouraged the agency “to ensure that industry is capable of implementing any rules both timely and successfully.”

O’Rielly said he was pleased with the agency’s considerations of privacy concerns as it deals with location information.

“Law abiding Americans should not have to worry about being tracked by law enforcement or other government entities” if they’re not seeking emergency services, O’Rielly said, calling on the commission “to be extremely careful as technology evolves.”

The wireless companies share the concerns of the commission’s Republicans.

The major wireless carriers — represented by CTIA - The Wireless Association — responded to the FCC vote by encouraging the agency “to consider location accuracy requirements that are grounded in verified data, not aspirational target setting.”

Any standards and timelines imposed by the commission must take into account the technical capabilities of the wireless companies and the emergency response centers, the group said in a statement.

Wheeler responded to those concerns by discussing the ultimate goal of the standards: “the safety of the American people” in emergency situations.

“It’s never wrong to overreach on those kinds of goals,” he said. 

“We will remain flexible, we will remain observant, we will certainly deal with the realities of technology in the marketplace.”