E911 Remains Elusive

FCC Report: Better coordination needed for rollout of services.

A new study conducted for the Federal Communications Commission found that while nationwide location-based service for 911 operators is an important goal, it remains unlikely until federal, state and local organizations better coordinate their efforts.

And until that happens, the industry wont see commercial services that take advantage of the E911 (Enhanced 911) initiative, a set of rules that the FCC established in 1996.

The rules established schedules for carriers in two steps—both of which were contingent on the requests of PSAPs (public safety answering points) that receive 911 calls.

In the first phase, which began in April 1998, PSAPs started requesting that wireless carriers provide a callback number and the location of the nearest cellular tower for each emergency call. Under Phase 2, starting in October 2001, the carriers would have to provide the longitude and latitude of all 911 calls. The rules required a somewhat arbitrary mandate of accuracy within 100 meters for 67 percent of calls and 300 meters for 95 percent of calls.

The rules have evolved as technology has advanced. In October 1999, the FCC revised the mandate to include solutions that were based on the handset and not just on the towers. Handset solutions would require accuracy of 50 meters for 67 percent of the calls and 150 meters for 95 percent of calls.

By 2001, the FCC had begun to hand out waivers to wireless carriers as it became clearer that nobody would meet the mandate. Last fall, the commission announced that Dale Hatfield, former chief of the FCCs Office of Engineering and Technology, would investigate the problem and file a report, which he released this month.

"The commission will use the information in the Hatfield report and in the comments it receives to assess enhanced emergency 911 services deployment issues and consider methods to overcome any obstacles and accelerate deployment," said Meribeth McCarrick, a spokeswoman for the FCC, in Washington.

What Hatfield basically found was that the problem lay not so much with wireless carriers but with existing wire-line building blocks.

"One overarching issue that immediately emerged in my inquiry is that the existing wire-line E911 infrastructure, while generally reliable, is seriously antiquated," Hatfield reported. "Indeed, it turns out that the existing wire-line E911 infrastructure is built upon not only an outdated technology, but one that was originally designed for an entirely different purpose. It is an analog technology in an overwhelmingly digital world. Yet it is a critical building block in the implementation of wireless E911.

"Unless corrective steps are taken, I find that the rollout of wireless E911 services will continue to be constrained by what I refer to in shorthand as PSAP fatigue, the lack of cost recovery and other funding mechanisms, and the lack of a champion within the federal government. I also conclude that, even when good-faith efforts are made on all sides, PSAP awareness and readiness remains a potential detriment to the rapid and efficient rollout of wireless E911 services."

Hatfield went on to conclude that ILECs (Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers), while crucial to rolling out E911 services, have been ignored by FCC rules and that the FCC needs to better define everyones responsibility and not just those of wireless carriers.

While Hatfields report recommended that the FCC remain in charge of the E911 initiative, it also recommended increased participation from other federal offices: a National 911 Program Office to be established within the Department of Homeland Security; more participation with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners to deal with the expenses that face ILECs; and the creation of organizations at state, regional and local levels to coordinate the rollout of E911 services.

The recommendations are vague, but they do validate the concerns that carriers have had all along.

Carriers have reported for months that the initial FCC mandates were unrealistic because they didnt take things into consideration on the local level.

Verizon Wireless, for example, recently launched a new phone with embedded Global Positioning System technology, the Audiovox Communications Corp. 9155-GPX. The Bedminster, N.J., company has been selling another E911-capable phone, the SCH-N300 from Samsung Corp., since last December.

But even though the company is marketing the handsets, Verizon officials acknowledge that most customers shouldnt expect their local emergency service organizations to support the devices. While Verizon Wireless has deployed Phase 1 service to more than 1,350 PSAPs, only York County, Va.; St. Clair County and Cook County, Ill.; Lake County, Ind.; Harris County, Texas; Chicago; St. Louis; and most of Rhode Island have been upgraded for Phase 2.

Verizon officials put the onus on the PSAPs and ILECs, saying they must take action before E911 is a national reality. "They need to get their act together, too," said one company official.