The FCC''s New Action Plan: Next-Generation 911 and Indoor Location

Feature Article

The FCC''s New Action Plan: Next-Generation 911 and Indoor Location

By TMCnet Special Guest
Marty Feuerstein, CTO, Polaris Wireless
  |  October 01, 2011

On Aug. 10, FCC (News - Alert) Chairman Julius Genachowski announced a comprehensive plan to upgrade the technology behind the country’s emergency call systems and move toward next-generation 911. Two of the primary goals behind the plan are to enable the use of advanced communications methods beyond voice, such as text, photo, and video, to contact 911 call takers; and to develop location accuracy mechanisms for NG911.

Genachowski has stated that he was motivated by the example of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shootings, where students hiding from the gunman were unable silently to text 911 call takers, and thus avoid giving away their whereabouts by talking on their phones. At the same time, the students’ location inside campus buildings would have posed challenges for satellite-based Enhanced 911 location methods, such as GPS, which require line of sight to orbiting satellites. The NG911 action plan is also a timely response to evolving consumer preferences and expanding reliance on mobile devices.

There is a strong case to be made for the integration of non-voice communications methods into the existing 911 framework. Guidelines devised for fixed-address wireline phones, or even early-generation mobile devices, are becoming obsolete in a world of smartphones, texting, and instant video and photo sharing:

  • smartphone adoption in the U.S. surpassed 31 percent in early 2011 and continues to grow rapidly;
  • mobile devices now incorporate advanced features like cameras and video recorders that were rare in phones only five years ago;
  • younger mobile phone users have chosen texting as their preferred (and as we know, often predominant) method of communicating, with more than 54 percent texting daily;
  • and the growing reliance on social networks has resulted in the expectation that voice is merely one aspect of a complex communications web, and often secondary to text or images.

In addition, mobile location methods have improved significantly in recent years, with technologies such as RF pattern matching able to locate devices indoors with high accuracy, warranting the review of location accuracy mechanisms for NG911. The precursor to this review was the September 2010 FCC Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which required wireless operators to deliver county-level location accuracy compliance (prior to this, operators could aggregate results across their entire networks, balancing performance in urban and rural counties). The FCC’s first exclusion deadline related to the FNPRM rules passed on July 28, with no wireless operators requesting exclusions for urban counties. The exclusion requests were all for rural counties where, due to sparse populations and lower densities of cellular towers, even basic location methods such as triangulation are unlikely to produce high-accuracy location estimates.

With the new action plan calling for the development of location accuracy mechanisms for NG911, such as a testing methodology to measure indoor location accuracy, many wireless operators may find themselves without an effective way to locate with high accuracy NG911 calls that take place indoors. This is a vital issue because more than 60 percent of all mobile calls take place indoors, and over 25 percent of U.S. homes rely on mobile phones as their only means of telephony.

An indoor-location requirement will present a particular problem for wireless operators that rely on GPS, which, as stated above, relies on unobstructed satellite signals to determine location. GPS produces less accurate indoor location information, and takes longer to fix on a target. Of the two commonly deployed terrestrial location methods (U-TDOA and RFPM), RFPM is alone in providing high accuracy indoors without expensive and time-consuming radio-hardware changes to the network, and is capable of locating any device on the network, critical to life-or- death applications like 911.

The FCC now plans to address the practical and technical issues around NG911 and examine whether there exists adequate broadband infrastructure to deliver the necessary bandwidth required to transport NG911 communications. There is also a commercial factor to consider. By requiring indoor location accuracy, the FCC could indirectly spur the development of location-based services that leverage this enhanced capability, driving new business models for wireless operators and other players in the wireless location eco-system.

In many ways, the move to include indoor location requirements for NG911 mirrors the initial activity around VoIP and NG911. In both cases, the FCC was prompted to respond to market developments with rapid adoption of new technologies, which the existing 911 system was not designed to address. The mission-critical nature of 911 requires the FCC to be aware of leading-edge capabilities to make an informed decision about when the new technology has reached critical mass to necessitate changes to 911 regulations. That time has arrived for indoor location. 

TMCnet publishes expert commentary on various telecommunications, IT, call center, CRM and other technology-related topics. Are you an expert in one of these fields, and interested in having your perspective published on a site that gets several million unique visitors each month? Get in touch.

Edited by Jennifer Russell


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