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July 11, 2014

FCC: Nearly 90 Percent of D.C. Wireless 911 Calls Have Wrong Info


The number to call when seconds may count and lives may hang in the balance is always 911. But what happens when 911 can't get the right information about a caller's current location?

It's the kind of development that could well see people die, and according to new data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), nine out of ten wireless 911 calls made in the Washington D.C area in the first half of 2013 came without accurate location data. That's got some calling for better indoor location technology.

The data was reportedly obtained on the strength of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and was filed with the FCC by the Office of Unified Communications last fall. But the numbers were starkly terrifying by themselves, made perhaps worse by the sheer age of the data in question. Only 10.3 percent of calls coming in to the District's 911 service had what was known as “Phase II” location data included, which includes latitude and longitude, representing here 39,805 total calls. The remaining portion of the 385,341 calls made in the period looked at — December 2012 to July 2013 — contained only “Phase I” data, which showed the nearest cell tower. That's generally considered as being too broad in scope to prove very useful for emergency response, and the kind of thing that could prove disastrous.

The problem here, according to reports, is the style of location technology currently used by most wireless carriers. Known as A-GPS, it requires a clear line of sight to satellites, which essentially means it doesn't work indoors very well, or in areas where sight of the sky is lost. The FCC actually had a plan to address this, known as Proceeding 07-114 according to reports, that would require wireless carriers to use a different method that would offer accurate location data, and to have such in place in the next two years. But at last report that was still just a proposal as opposed to a requirement.

It's a proposal that the director of the Find Me 911 Coalition, Jamie Barnett, agrees with in great measure. Barnett, noting that the FCC's new rule would “...save more than 10,000 American lives each year,” urged leaders to “...not be swayed by carrier rhetoric and empty promises of some future solution.” Carriers, meanwhile, appear to be more focused on a combination solution that keeps A-GPS, but also brings in network technology, though there's likely to be plenty of discussion about this point for some time to come.

It's important to provide accurate location data for 911, particularly when callers are unable to do so. Sending emergency response to, say, a store can be difficult for those who know how to get to said store, but don't know the street address. For a building like a mall or a shopping center, the bottleneck would be even worse, as anyone who's been inside, for example, the Mall of America would know. It doesn't quite seem right to put all the burden of the location data provision mechanism on carriers, however, as said carriers aren't the only ones with skin in this particular game. But certainly, carriers have a role to play here.

Still, the key point is that 911 was designed to be on hand when it was needed, and not being able to get accurate location data in place forces 911 to run contrary to its intended purpose. That's not only wasteful, but also dangerous, and getting better location data in hand is going to prove very important.


 

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