FCC Tries to Help Emergency Responders Find 911 Cell-Phone Callers

Carriers would have to provide more accurate information to 911 centers.

A picture taken on October 12, 2011 in the French western city of Rennes shows (FromL) a Samsung phone, a Blackberry phone and an Iphone 4. (National Journal)

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to move ahead with a proposal to require cell-phone carriers to provide more accurate information about the location of 911 calls.

Telephone companies already have to inform 911 call centers about the location of landline callers, and there are also federal standards to ensure that emergency responders can find cell-phone callers when they are outdoors. But there are currently no requirements for location accuracy for indoor 911 cell-phone callers.

With more than 70 percent of 911 calls now coming from cell phones, poor location information is making it increasingly difficult for officials to respond to emergencies. Finding a caller inside of a large multistory building is a particular problem, the commission found.

The proposal would require carriers to locate 911 callers within 50 meters of their location horizontally and within three-meter vertically, which would essentially allow emergency responders to know which floor of a building the call was coming from.

The carriers would have to meet the horizontal standard accuracy for 67 percent of calls within two years and 80 percent of calls with five years. The carriers would have three years to meet the vertical accuracy requirement for 67 percent calls and five years for 80 percent of calls.

Ajit Pai and Michael O'Reilly, the two Republicans on the five-member commission, applauded the new standards but worried that the commission was setting an unrealistic timeline.

"Carriers cannot begin to deploy a technology solution that does not yet exist," Pai said. "And the public should not be led to rely on a promise that cannot be kept."

CTIA, the lobbying group for cell-phone carriers, said its companies "stand ready to work" with the commission but urged the agency to pursue "requirements that are grounded in verified data, not aspirational target"‘setting."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler had little sympathy for the Republican and industry concerns.

"Hey, we're dealing with human life," he said.

Wheeler argued that it's "never wrong to overreach" on public safety, but he said the commission will remain flexible if technological problems arise.

The FCC will review comments on the proposal before voting on final regulations.

The commission advanced the proposal after Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo and Republican Rep. John Shimkus sent a letter to the agency last month calling for better location accuracy on 911 calls.