Wireless carriers have turned up the heat on the Federal Communications Commission, arguing in a lawsuit that new enhanced 911 location accuracy guidelines grossly miss the mark and that the agency’s extension of a 2008 deadline is inadequate.
The FCC last year clarified that cellular carriers must meet E-911 location accuracy requirements at the public-safety answering point service-area as public-safety groups had requested. Wireless service providers prefer state-wide averaging to determine compliance with E-911 location accuracy standards. But their grievances with the FCC’s E-911 location accuracy ruling go much deeper.
In last September’s decision, the FCC ordered operators to meet interim and annual benchmarks during the next five years to ensure full compliance by Sept. 11, 2012. The first deadline was to have been Sept. 11, 2008. Angry wireless carriers – national and rural alike – protested, filing challenges at the FCC and federal appeals court. Last week, the FCC agreed to extend next year’s benchmark date to March 11, 2009. The deadline applies to a rule requiring wireless licensees to meet testing and measurement standards for wireless location accuracy in each economic area in which a carrier operates.
Carriers push on with lawsuit
The FCC’s move appears to be too little, too late, however.
“The FCC’s limited stay is a step in the right direction but it appears that the rationale for the [Public Safety and Homeland Security] Bureau’s last-minute action relates only to the commission’s delay in sending a summary of the revised location accuracy rules for Federal Register publication, rather than a recognition of the serious flaws in the rulemaking process. From RCA’s perspective, the appeal process must go forward,” stated the Rural Cellular Association.
A Democratic commissioner on the Republican-led FCC was even more critical of the agency’s handling of the E-911 location-accuracy issue.
“The release of a bureau-level order … to stay the Sept. 11, 2008, E-911 location accuracy compliance deadline adopted in the report and order in this proceeding serves as proof positive of the failure to get these rules right the first time,” stated Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. “As I stated then, I am concerned that the majority’s insistence on plowing forward with compliance benchmarks without a full record, rather than conducting this proceeding in a more thoughtful and deliberate manner, does not truly advance E-911. Instead, we find the advancement of our public’s safety entangled in legal uncertainties. Today’s action by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau is nothing more than a temporary band-aid that does not cure the underlying deficiencies embedded in the report and order.”
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is said to have wanted to include the deadline extension in a new order addressing petitions for reconsideration in the matter, but could not round up enough votes and therefore had the benchmark extended through an order signed by Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Chairman Derek Poarch.
A leading public-safety group had a mixed reaction.
“While APCO International has opposed a stay of the rules pending judicial review, we have no objection to the limited extension that the FCC granted today which reflects the delay in Federal Register publication of the rules,” said Association of Public-Safety Communications Officers International President Willis Carter. “However, this does not change the fact that PSAP-level accuracy will dramatically improve the 911 call-takers’ ability to locate and send appropriate resources to the growing number of callers using wireless phones and, because of this, wireless carriers should proceed as quickly possible toward reaching these goals.”
Martin has tended to emphasize public safety in recent years, only to be harshly criticized by the wireless industry on issues like E-911 location accuracy, the 700 MHz public-private partnership license and backup power for cell sites.
“Meeting location accuracy standards on average in the entire state of New York by providing enhanced 911 capability in Manhattan does not help first responders in Buffalo,” Martin stated when the rule was adopted Sept. 11 last year.
The cellular industry and some FCC members voiced concerns at that time about the government effectively imposing a new E-911 regime without considering a range of factors. Such factors include forthcoming findings in commission reports on the possibility of mandating a hybrid technical solution and a single wireless accuracy standard; whether to require carriers to report the height as well as the latitude and longitude of E-911 calls; and how to require carriers to measure and report compliance with the standards.
The FCC, cellular carriers and the public-safety community have been struggling to improve wireless E-911 for more than a decade, a situation complicated by technological capability, local and state budgets and shifting trends that have Americans increasingly making mobile phones their primary communications devices. Cellular operators today must accurately locate emergency callers anywhere between 50 meters and 300 meters of their actual position, depending on whether GPS handset or network-based E-911 technology is used. The FCC has slapped fines on a number of national operators in recent years for failure to meet E-911 obligations.
The E-911 location accuracy debate has gained urgency with findings that current technology may be inadequate to pin-point the many emergency calls made from indoors and in rural areas.