FCC to tighten local accuracy requirements for mobile phones

This story has been updated to correct errors in the description of the FCC’s location accuracy requirements and the date when the requirements take effect.

The Federal Communications Commission will require that all mobile phone service providers meet stringent accuracy location requirements by sometime in 2019, as part of its plans for Enhanced 911 service.

Wireless carriers currently provide location information in one of two ways, according to the FCC: a “handset-based” method that uses Global Positioning System signals or similar technology on a phone, or a “network-based” method that generates location information by triangulating a signal in relation to nearby cell towers.

Under the new requirements, posted in the Federal Register, the network-based standard would expire. That would leave carriers with three options for meeting the handset-based standard: using GPS or similar technology in the phone, providing location via software and network equipment, or a hybrid of the two, according to the FCC.

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The FCC also will require carriers do periodic tests of their E911 location accuracy and share the results with PSAPs, state 911 offices, and the FCC.

The long-range plans for a next-generation 911 service look to account for the growing reliance on mobile devices by allowing to send text, images and video to dispatchers during an emergency, in addition to calling. And when they call or text for help, the FCC wants accurate location information to go with the transmission.

An increasing number of people don’t even have a landline at home, relying on their cell phones for all calls. And that’s showing up in emergency calls. In Sandy Springs, Ga., for example, about 85 percent of all 911 calls come via smart phones.

Even though the majority of cell phones will soon have GPS or similar capability, the telecom industry opposes the regulation, saying "a unitary standard is not technically or economically feasible at this time," Engadget reports.

The FCC’s effort for enhanced 911 has been underway for a while, but it’s still uncertain when widespread mobile 911 services would be available. In the meantime, the idea is being tried out on smaller scales.

The University of Maryland is now using M-Urgency, an app for Android smart phones that allows students, faculty and staff members to send dispatchers real-time audio and video in an emergency. The app, which will be expanded to other platforms, makes use of the Android's built-in GPS capability to pinpoint the user's location.

And as far back as two years ago, the first text-to-911 gateway was tested in Iowa.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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Reader Comments

Sat, Oct 15, 2011

federal register link fails. good to see this was corrected.


Just as "Confused" indictated below, what is the sense of mandating this if the Obama administration is just going to help their CEO friend at Light Squared jam thru the flawed communication system that will negatively impact GPS heavily. The Light Squared project will probably happen, just like they got away with lying about the "Fast and Furious" program. After Light Squared is implemented and degrades all of the GPS systems, they will claim they didn't know what they were doing.

Fri, Oct 7, 2011 Charles Kerr Hollywood, Florida

I appreciate how this is helpful and think it is a very good idea. But I have to agree with some of the other comments.... If I can't turn the feature off, and I mean completely OFF, I'm not going to be happy. Allowing something like GPS tracking for the enhanced 911 service is great. But if the feature is there, someone else is going to figure out how to use it to their advantage and not to mine.

Thu, Oct 6, 2011 Confused

The FCC is going to require a GPS receiver in all mobile phones yet they are poised to enable a major interference source for such capabilities (LightSquared). Recently I have read that LightSquared intends to sue the FCC to allow it to operate regardless of the concerns of first responders, aviation and DOD officials about the loss of GPS functionality if the LightSquared proposal goes through. And the FCC needs to also require that the GPS can be trned OFF for all other applications in the phone EXCEPT 911 to prevent the tracking of individuals for no purpose. The GPS position can be updated every 5 seconds or so for the purpose of 911 location and should be sent as a result of a trigger pulse/signal from the 911 operator to prevent illegal use of this positional information

Thu, Oct 6, 2011

I don't carry a cell very often now, but unless there is a way to turn this feature completely off, guess I won't be carrying one at all, once this kicks in. No, I'm not one of paranoid folks fearing big brother- working for the feds, I KNOW how clueless big brother is. Just on principle, I'd rather not wear a tracking device 24/7.

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