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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