Public Safety Entities Stress Concerns About 911 Apps

February 3, 2017–A number of public safety entities have echoed concerns about how 911 apps interface with 911 systems, and some want FCC action, but several industry parties, including a group that represents app developers, say the FCC lacks the authority to take steps recommended by a public safety organization. Comments were filed by yesterday’s deadline in Rulemaking 11780 in response to a public notice issued in December by the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, which solicited comment in the wake of a filing by the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA) that complained about 911 apps (TRDaily, Dec. 19, 2016).

“NASNA states that its members have had ‘real-world’ experiences with 911 apps that ‘concern [them] greatly,’ including: a 911 app that ‘enables the end-user to over-ride location information generated by the device and send a different location to 911’; a 911 app vendor that ‘published NASNA’s logo on its Website and promotional materials without permission, claiming NASNA has endorsed its product,’ and other 911 app providers that have ‘briefed FCC and Department of Homeland Security staff, [placing] these agencies’ logos on their promotional material’; app providers making misleading claims that ‘911 location does not work from mobile phones,’ ‘cellular technology is unreliable,’ or that an app will ‘get help to [the end-user] faster and more reliably than simply calling 911’; and 911 apps that are not compatible with standard wireless 911 capabilities, such as one app that delivers 911 calls as VoIP calls for which ‘the normal wireless re-bid function cannot be performed when there is a need for more precise location,’” the bureau observed in the public notice.

The public notice continued, “Citing ‘the critical nature of 911 as the primary mechanism for the public to gain access to public safety services,’ NASNA requests that the Commission consider initiating a proceeding to address ‘concerns regarding how these applications and services interface with existing 911 systems,’ including: (1) ensuring that 911 apps ‘will not harm in any way how consumers currently access 911 service from a smartphone, including slowing down the process of gaining access to the 911 system’ and do not ‘present a danger to emergency responders, or interfere or impede them in the process of responding to calls for service’; (2) prohibiting 911 apps from ‘overrid[ing] location information generated by the device and enabling location data to be “spoofed” in a manner that displays information for the purposes of misleading the PSAP and first responders’; (3) ensuring that 911 apps ‘have been thoroughly tested to specific standards, including interoperability and downstream dispatching considerations’; (4) ensuring that ‘911 app providers are factually accurate in their marketing materials and do not mislead the public regarding how the product works,’ do not mislead as to whether ‘a state, regional, or local 911 governmental authority has approved, supports, or endorses, any particular product,’ and do not inaccurately claim that ‘the lack of cellular or broadband coverage in any geographic area’ is a failure of a 911 system; (5) ensuring that 911 apps will not ‘accidentally generate repeated pocket dialed 911 calls or 911 texts’ or ‘generate duplicate requests for emergency assistance automatically’; (6) providing for ‘the development of specific standards for communicating and displaying supplemental consumer or incident information in the context of a 911 [call] for dispatching purposes’; and (7) requiring that 911 apps adhere to ‘industry standards for the interconnection to [Next Generation] 911 systems and ensuring that 911 apps use appropriate public safety grade delivery networks and methods for message routing.’”

In its comments, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International said it “shares many of the concerns NASNA raised in its letter. For several years, APCO has been applying its institutional expertise to the rapidly-developing field of mobile apps designed for public safety and emergency response to ensure these tools are as safe and effective as possible. In 2015, APCO published a white paper specifically to address apps intended to replace or augment communications with 9-1-1. APCO remains convinced that mobile apps are not ready to replace traditional voice calls and SMS messages to 9-1-1. While some responsibly-developed apps can enhance the 9-1-1 experience, critical issues must be addressed prior to implementing such tools.

“Further, APCO remains very concerned that the marketing claims of some app developers are often misleading, uninformed, and even dangerous,” the group added. “For example, some apps misleadingly claim to provide a ‘precise location’ to find callers when 9-1-1 can’t. Such hyperbolic descriptions confuse important issues and do a disservice to the hardworking professionals who have dedicated their careers to improving our nation’s emergency response system.”

APCO added that it “is not aware of any apps that are capable of functioning consistently with existing 9-1-1 systems and accounting for the operational needs of PSAPs. This has been required of every new technology introduced into the 9-1-1 system, from wireless phones, to VoIP, to SMS-based text-to-911. Not only were these technologies implemented reliably and securely within the existing 9-1-1 infrastructure, but great care was taken to prevent detrimental impacts on PSAP operations. This not an easy task, but it is essential for maintaining existing levels of reliability and security. … Apps designed to augment, rather than replace calls to 9-1-1 present significant operational problems for PSAPs and put users at risks. Some well-meaning, talented developers have produced apps with guidance from public safety communications experts, but even with the best of intentions and thoughtful design, a host of issues must be addressed before apps are used to augment 9-1-1.”

The National Emergency Number Association said that “9-1-1-related applications should be held to the same high standards as other components of 9-1-1 systems,” and it urged the FCC to adopt a notice of inquiry seeking “comment on how best to address these issues and ensure the integrity, efficacy, and availability of 9-1-1 service for all consumers.”

“Over the past five years, numerous application developers have approached NENA either to present information about new products and services they intended to introduce, or to seek our input on ways in which their products and services could be improved,” the group said. “As applications have, in fact, come on the market, our members have experienced first-hand the enormous potential that these new tools hold either to enhance and enrich 9-1-1 service for consumers, or to confuse and degrade public safety response. In some cases, developers have engaged directly with technical and operational subject matter experts from public safety answering points (‘PSAPs’) and NENA’s staff to address critical needs of the 9-1-1 community for reliability, standardization, security, and operational consistency. These developers have, in general, received a positive response from the community, and benefitted greatly from its expertise. Others, however, have launched products or services without such engagement, and, in the worst cases, without even a passing understanding of the practical realities of public safety operations. These developers have in general, received a negative response from the community, and suffered for this critical oversight. To the extent that issues or concerns raised in NASNA’s request fall within the Commission’s jurisdiction, NENA supports the institution of a proceeding to address them.”

New York City “reiterates its commitment to supporting new communications technologies. However, these technologies must be deployed in a measured, safe, and consistent manner. Therefore, the City asks the Commission to undertake a proceeding to ensure 911 apps are reliable, safe, and meet the high standard of service set by our emergency response system,” according to a filing by the city.

“Smartphone apps that process 911 calls in a manner that circumvents the existing 911 call delivery system, provide the system with inaccurate information without the City’s knowledge, consent, or authorization, and/or fail to provide the level of service expected and required by people in emergencies, undermine the 911 mission and places both callers and responders at a serious and unnecessary disadvantage,” the city complained. “Timely and germane response to wireless 911 calls relies primarily on accurate, reliable information provided by the caller or the caller’s device.”

“The City believes the Commission should initiate a proceeding to determine whether 911 apps, in light of the problems alleged by NASNA, should be allowed to interconnect to the 911 system,” the filing added. The FCC “should prohibit the sale and distribution of smartphone apps that thwart, circumvent, or undermine the 911 call delivery and dispatch process by providing false or misleading data to 911 call-takers and dispatchers. Further, any apps that are allowed to interconnect to the 911 system should be subject to rules addressing the issues described herein and by NASNA to ensure such apps function in a measured, safe, and consistent manner.”

“The sheer number of potential 911-related smartphone ‘Apps’ which have been and are likely to be developed, the practical requirement for App developers to create a distinct ‘look and feel’ to their application for intellectual property protection purposes, the lack of knowledge or experience with 9-1-1 and public safety operations by many developers, the ability of Apps to create and send text-to-911 messages with ‘emergency information’ including geographic coordinates or URLs for more information (which may be deleted, blocked or PSAPs may have policies against accessing for cybersecurity purposes), and their transmission of alarms directly to PSAPs without a commercial call center first clearing false alarms; all have the potential to overwhelm PSAPs with relevant and irrelevant information regarding actual incidents and false alarms,” said the Boulder, Colo., Regional Emergency Telephone Service Authority.

“Apps may transmit to PSAPs medical or technical information which dispatchers cannot be expected to have the expertise to interpret and use. The ability of App developers to churn out Apps which users can utilize to send text-to-911 messages and attachments to PSAPs, and/or program to automatically send text-to-911 messages to PSAPs, can overwhelm a PSAP with frivolous calls-for-assistance and irrelevant information. In short, 911-related Apps have the potential to turn the nation’s effective 9-1-1 and Emergency Response Systems into a Tower of Babble, and waste limited resources of PSAPs and First Responders dealing with frivolous calls and false alarms,” the filing added.

“Not only can App developers increase the burdens and costs to PSAPs, delay responses to real emergencies, and render text-to-911 messages so unreliable as to make text-to-911 service unusable for anyone; it has been demonstrated that some App providers will misrepresent approval by 9-1-1 stakeholders, misrepresent the reliability of CMRS and broadband/VoIP providers and devices to connect to the correct PSAP, and otherwise mislead consumers in order to advance their own pecuniary interest,” according to the authority.

“A four-part solution is required. The first part of the solution is for the FCC to adopt regulations requiring CMRS service and device providers to publish their location APIs so that any voice, text or data application for 9-1-1 can access the more accurate data the CMRS providers have agreed to provide under their ‘Roadmap’ and ‘Parallel Path’ commitments,” the filing said. “Second, the Commission should establish a ‘Standards Authority’ to (i) establish standards for 9-1-1 related Apps (such as the inability of users to modify location data transmitted to the 9-1-1 system, the transmission of useful information with XML tags so that CAD and other PSAP systems can display information from different Apps in a uniform format for dispatchers, and automated alarms will first be transmitted to a commercial call center for clearing of false alarms, for example), (ii) review and approve Apps which meet the standards, (iii) assign reference numbers and codes to be used in the protocols of messages transmitted by approved Apps identifying to the 9-1-1 system that an App is approved and messages from it should be accepted, and (iv) publish a list of approved Apps to assist consumers.

“The third part of the solution is for the Commission to adopt regulations prohibiting service providers and 9-1-1 system providers from accepting data from unapproved 911-related Apps, and prohibiting CMRS and device providers from including in their App stores unapproved 911-related Apps,” according to the authority.  “Finally, certain statutes and regulations would be required, and the Standards Authority should identify and propose the specific statutes required. Generally, statutes and regulations would be required prohibiting App developers from falsely representing their approval by the Standards Authority, and from falsely representing approval of any 9-1-1 stakeholder including state and local 9-1-1 Authorities, state or federal regulatory agencies or stakeholder associations.”

The Larimer Emergency Telephone Authority in Loveland, Colo., said, “Smartphone APPs do not enhance the caller’s ability to reach 9-1-1.  In testing numerous Smartphone APPs we experienced connectivity delays to our 9-1-1 centers. The APPs we tested did not perform better than the caller placing a voice call to 9-1-1 or a text to 9-1-1. … From the APPs we tested, you can override both location information and location information preset by a phone’s owner to be sent with a ‘profile’ to 9-1-1.  LETA agrees with NASNA that the risk of ‘spoofing’ a location is great and needs immediate attention.  LETA encourages the FCC to take action to ensure Smartphone APPs are required to be thoroughly tested, marketed correctly to the public without false assertions or assertions that the APP should replace a traditional voice call to 9-1-1 in an emergency.”

The Arapahoe County E9-1-1 Emergency Communications Service Authority in Littleton, Colo., filed comments similar to those submitted by LETA.

In joint comments, the Texas 9-1-1 Alliance, the Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications, and the Municipal Emergency Communications Districts Association asked the FCC to “promptly initiate the 9-1-1 applications proceeding.” The groups’ comments noted that the Texas 9-1-1 Alliance submitted an ex parte filing to the FCC in May 2016 expressing concerns similar to NASNA’s and calling for FCC action.

AT&T, Inc., said it also “shares many of NASNA’s concerns expressed in its letter. Internet Protocol services, including those provided through mobile apps, hold the enormous promise of innovative features to enhance and improve 911 calling and emergency response. But like NASNA, AT&T has observed that certain emergency services apps can interfere with the normal operations of 911 calling provided by CMRS carriers pursuant to the Commission’s rules. Where an app ‘takes over’ the 911 experience from the CMRS provider, there must be no compliance responsibility or legal liability on the carrier for the routing and delivery of location information of these calls by over-the-top 911 apps that may ride on top of the CMRS provider’s internet access service. Wireless carriers cannot be the gate keepers for these third-party emergency services apps over which the carrier has no control.

“Although AT&T sympathizes with many of NASNA’s concerns, we also note that NASNA offers no legal basis upon which the Commission could assert authority over 911 apps,” AT&T added. “As the Commission is aware, AT&T is a strong supporter of and is active in development of industry standards and best practices. Many 911 calling issues have been resolved through such industry collaboration over the years (such as for pocket dialing from wireless phones).  As NASNA suggests, this sort of industry collaboration among 911 app providers could be a path forward to addressing many of the legitimate concerns raised by NASNA about these evolving technologies and should be encouraged. It is unclear, however, under what legal authority NASNA believes the Commission could compel application providers to implement any of the recommendations NASNA puts forward in its letter.

“If, however, the Commission grants the NASNA request, it should consider the appropriate scope of such a proceeding,” the carrier continued. “Specifically, over-the-top VoIP calling apps more broadly create challenges for 911 calling. These VoIP apps provide competitive service on wireless devices and therefore should be responsible for providing 911 calling to their customers.”

AT&T added, “To the extent that the Commission moves forward with a rulemaking as requested by NASNA, it might also be a proceeding in which to consider rules appropriate for interconnected VoIP (other than LTE) in a mobile environment, such as for over-the-top VoIP apps and Wi-Fi calling.”

NTCA said the FCC “is not the appropriate venue to address the concerns raised by NASNA in its petition. … Indeed, as highlighted in the NASNA petition, the issues to be addressed stem largely from unregulated application developers over which the FCC lacks jurisdiction. Whatever the merits of the issues raised by the request, any such concerns should not and cannot be solved simply by casting about for entities over whom the Commission has statutory authority so that new duties can be imposed upon them.”

“In juxtaposition to the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission (‘FTC’) has a unique dual mission to protect consumers while also promoting competition and, as a byproduct, technological innovation,” NTCA added. “As such, the FTC is a better venue to holistically review the concerns as raised by NASNA in its petition — including the state of the application ecosystem and/or the market need for government intervention — and, likewise, the FTC is better positioned to act.”

“To the extent the FCC determines that it must nonetheless proceed forward independently, NTCA urges the Commission to start by asking the right questions. As an initial matter, as noted above, the Commission should examine its legal authority to review and act on this request. Further, since standards are at the heart of this issue any subsequent action in this proceeding must address how to evolve and proliferate standards for the 911 apps ecosystem,” NTCA contended.  “Standards for 911 apps should address minimum requirements regarding security and privacy of data, and how applications interface with PSAPs and existing legacy systems, chief among them location accuracy processes and procedures.”

The trade group also noted that “PSAPs require an adequate and consistent funding source, which would enable call centers to benefit from Next-Generation 911, including new application technology. Congress and state governments should investigate how to further support and bolster the technological capabilities of PSAPs to receive and benefit from new applications.”

Bandwidth.com, Inc., said, “Because technology persistently challenges established practices and expectations, Bandwidth believes the public interest is best served by embracing communication innovations that spring from IP technologies while simultaneously striving to meet the critical emergency service needs of consumers and public safety professionals alike. In trying to balance innovation and emergency calling support, Bandwidth urges the Commission to carefully avoid heavy-handed regulations that may stymie the development of consumer-driven marketplace advancements that can ultimately yield more robust emergency calling capabilities for all stakeholders.” Bandwidth.com added that it “agrees with NASNA that the Commission, and the industry as a whole, should work to ensure that critical strengths within the current 911 services environment are preserved at the outset, and make regulatory changes aimed at targeted improvements only when such changes are demonstrably evident. Advancing key, narrowly tailored and consensus-based objectives will yield more robust results sooner than sweeping reform of 911 will.”

Mission Critical Partners, Inc., a consulting firm, said it “encourages the Commission to initiate a proceeding to consider how best to apply existing regulations to 911 Apps and, where necessary, adopt new requirements. Any proposed regulations should protect consumers and the 911 system by ensuring that 911 Apps deliver information promptly, reliably, and accurately. MCP urges the Commission to craft regulations that address these goals while promoting — and not stifling — innovation in this nascent industry.”

“Many — though not all — of the rules NASNA requested the FCC consider adopting fall squarely within the Commission’s primary or ancillary jurisdiction under the Communications Act,” the firm added. “The Commission’s rules on wireless, VoIP, and text to 911 demonstrate the Commission’s role in protecting the public with reliable access to 911 systems. It would be nearly impossible for the Commission to carry out its duty of promoting public safety without addressing the potentially life-threatening dangers introduced to 911 service by 911 Apps. However, the Commission should carefully review NASNA’s specific requests related to marketing and consumer education. We believe there is a fine line between what the Commission may regulate (ex. descriptions of service offered by the 911 App) and what is within the jurisdictional purview of other federal agencies (ex. consumer marketing).”

ACT, which represents apps developers, also questioned the FCC’s legal authority to take the actions sought by NASNA, and it said the Commission generally should not do anything that would thwart the sector. “Emergency communications are no exception to the app revolution, and the Commission should ensure that its policies enhance, rather than disrupt, the benefits that this innovative ecosystem can bring to 911 communications,” the group said. “The hyper-competitive app economy’s market effects demand that companies offering app-based services provide reliable apps in the public safety context, and the App Association is committed to working with all stakeholders to ensure reliable apps that provide 911 connectivity for Americans.”

“If it is to continue benefiting countless Americans, the app economy’s ingenuity should not be stifled by regulatory overreach,” ACT continued. “From this public policy perspective, we strongly urge the Commission to refrain from any further formal action in this proceeding. The App Association is committed to working with all stakeholders, including the Commission, on ways to ensure the reliability of apps that facilitate 911 communications.”

“In its PN, the Commission completely omits discussion of where it would derive authority over apps enabling 911 communications, or apps generally,” ACT added. “As the Commission is aware, it typically does not engage in matters involving the business practices of ‘edge providers.’ The App Association does not believe that this proceeding is appropriate because it falls outside of the regulatory scope granted to the Commission by either the Communications Act or the Telecommunications Act. If the Commission proceeds with this matter, it should first engage in a thorough analysis addressing its legal authority over this issue. Until such an analysis is presented for public review and comment, we cannot speculate on what such authority would be.”

The group added that it “understands and appreciates NASNA’s concerns expressed in their letter. We are committed to ensuring that apps providing 911 communications are reliable. Fortunately for NASNA, a proper forum to resolve its concerns expressed to the FCC already exists elsewhere. The FTC — not the FCC — is the proper venue to address apps and related alleged consumer harms generally, as well as for the specific complaints outlined in NASNA’s letter to the outgoing Chairman. Under Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, the FTC has the authority to protect consumers against ‘unfair or deceptive acts or practices.’ The FTC also has the proven experience and requisite expertise to handle issues like the ones addressed in the Commission’s PN and the letter to which it is responding.”

ACT also stressed “the need for establishing a data-driven evidence base in advance of setting ex ante policies. NASNA’s letter to the Commission fails to provide such evidence and contains only anecdotes. Action on such a basis would cause damage to innovation in the app ecosystem. Should the Commission proceed in this matter, despite an apparent lack of authority, the App Association strongly urges that action to be based on a clear and demonstrated evidence basis.”

RapidSOS, Inc., which developed an app called Haven that connects people to PSAPs, said it is “deeply worried about 9-1-1 apps that promote false claims or provide functionality that is detrimental to public safety, such as allowing spoofed locations that could be used to mislead PSAPs, or any means that would slow down the process of gaining access to the 9-1-1 system.

“Throughout the development, testing and deployment of our products and services, we have continually sought guidance of the public safety community in determining how 9-1-1 apps should interface with PSAPs,” the company added.  “We have spent considerable resources studying and developing solutions that comply with guidance provided by major public safety associations. … These guidelines served as an important baseline for our work, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from and engage with the industry in a number of additional ways.”

“We believe that the industry and the public at large would benefit from a clearly defined set of criteria an app developer needs to meet prior to offering a 9-1-1 app to ensure that all 9-1-1 apps are developed in a manner that safeguards accurate and timely response and meets cybersecurity best practices. There are many ways that the FCC could play a role in such a process. For example, the Commission could build on the important 911 Apps Workshop that it held on May 8, 2015, to discuss ‘how existing apps are assisting in the provision of 911 service, how 911 network architecture affects requirements for the app design and delivery, and future steps needed to encourage further development and integration of 911 apps into the broader 911 ecosystem,’” RapidSOS said.

“Convening leaders from the 9-1-1 apps community and 9-1-1 industry leaders with public safety experts in an effort designed to produce best practices, akin to the many other successful industry collaborations convened by the FCC … would be a logical starting point towards the development of a much-needed national 9-1-1 apps certification process,” it said.

“To the extent that the Commission determines it has jurisdiction to regulate 9-1-1 apps, then the Commission could consider a rule requiring all app developers that offer a ‘9-1-1 app’ to engineer their products such that they connect callers to the appropriate 9-1-1 Public Safety Answering Point through established E9-1-1 or NG9-1-1 routing mechanisms, and the associated requirements for delivery of voice and location specified in the applicable 9-1-1 industry standards (e.g., NENA i26, NENA i37),” the company said. —Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily