FCC Proposes Z-Axis Accuracy Metric for 911 Calls

The FCC adopted a fourth further notice of proposed rulemaking today proposing a Z-axis, or vertical, location accuracy metric for wireless 911 calls. Commissioners took the action over the dissent of Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who said the item didn’t go far enough in assuring that first responders would be able to locate 911 callers.

The item in PS docket 07-114 proposes a Z-axis metric “of plus or minus three meters relative to the handset for 80% of indoor wireless 911 calls,” the agency noted in a news release. “The Commission tentatively concluded that such a location accuracy metric — within three meters above or below the phone — would be sufficiently accurate to identify the caller’s floor level in most cases and would be technically feasible under the timeframes established in the Commission’s Enhanced 911 rules.”  Carriers would have to meet that metric or be capable of enabling dispatchable location.

National carriers would have to achieve the five-meter metric by 2021 in the top 25 cellular market areas (CMAs) and by 2023 in the largest 50 CMAs. Non-nationwide carriers would have an extra year to meet benchmarks.

Last year, national wireless carriers recommended a z-axis metric of plus or minus five meters (TR Daily, Aug. 7, 2018). The carriers were required to submit a recommendation pursuant to a 911 location accuracy order adopted in 2015 (TR Daily, Jan. 29, 2015).

But public safety entities said the industry proposal fell short and  favored a more precise z-axis metric of at least plus or minus three meters.

“I don’t think this is ambitious enough,” Commissioner Rosenworcel said of the three-meter metric.  “In the years since this framework was put in place, technology has evolved.  It has improved.  Our record reflects it is possible to locate 911 callers with more precision — and I think we should be able to do it in less time all across the country.  The truth is a 3-meter policy does not provide public safety with precise floor location.  As the text of the rulemaking acknowledges, it does not yield floor-level accuracy.  I think that’s a problem.  … We should choose standards that without fail provide floor level accuracy.  When police or firefighters show up in an emergency, the last thing they should have to do is take out a measuring tape.  They need a standard that tells them precisely where you are.

“I appreciate that this rulemaking has evolved since it was first put forward,” Ms. Rosenworcel added. “It now includes a discrete question about floor levels.  It also asks questions about privacy.  But on the most fundamental level, it is organized around standards that unquestionably fall short of what first responders require to keep us safe.  The fact is we need real precision if we want to be able to locate with floor-level accuracy every 911 call — and we need it fast.  And on this score this rulemaking misses the mark.  I regretfully dissent.”

Her fellow Democrat, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, approved in part and concurred in part.

“While a 3-meter z-axis metric, as this FNPRM proposes, will get first responders close, it still leaves about a 10-foot margin of error, which can send first responders to the floor above or below you. I’m concurring in part because this FNPRM does not set out a clear path or propose a plan to get to a greater level of accuracy than 3-meters,” Mr. Starks said. “Only floor level accuracy will give first responders the right tools to go to the right floor, the first time, every time. We need a plan to get there and that plan has to get it done as quickly as possible. The days where first responders don’t know what floor of a tall building a call for help is coming from must become history.”

The Commissioner added that he “had several other concerns about this FNPRM, as it was originally drafted. The first is whether the vertical location technology described in the FNPRM will work for consumers who use the Commission’s Lifeline program. The FNPRM describes barometric pressure sensor technology, used in most higher-end mobile handsets manufactured since 2016, that can provide information about the handset’s altitude. This technology can be lifesaving if your phone has it. But, do Lifeline phones have it?’ … The FNPRM before us includes questions that I called for about this concern.

“My other concern has to with data privacy and security. The rules on which this FNPRM seeks comment allow carriers to comply with vertical location accuracy requirements in two ways, through z-axis technology, as this FNPRM addresses, or through delivery of ‘dispatchable location information’ which is essentially the caller’s address and floor or suite number if they are in a tall building. Carriers have developed technology to obtain dispatchable location information using wireless networks that users’ phones connect to when a 911 call is made,” the Commissioner said.

“Recognizing the high degree of location accuracy that this technology delivers, however, the Commission adopted rules specifically limiting use of data from the National Emergency Address Database, or NEAD, to 911 calls. The Commission also required industry to develop a privacy and security plan for this data. I’m glad that this FNPRM now asks important questions about the appropriate treatment of similarly situated z-axis data and whether rules like those the Commission adopted for NEAD data should apply,” he said. “We need to build protections in to make sure that consumer’s sensitive location data is not misused, like we have been reading about in the news. I appreciate my colleagues agreeing with me that these questions should be included.”

“While the wireless industry initially advocated for a five-meter z-axis metric, it recognized that the public safety community was not in agreement and, to provide certainty, is willing to test a three-meter metric in the established test bed,” Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said. “Currently, two vendors appear capable of providing vertical location accuracy results within three meters in some scenarios with a consistency that would comply with our rules.  Early test bed results, however, do not support a two-meter z-axis metric, which was supported by some in the record.  I plan on following this issue closely and will want to see that there is solid evidence to ensure that the metric the Commission eventually picks is feasible in the applicable timeframes.

“Further, I applaud the efforts of the wireless industry to perfect technologies capable of providing accurate vertical location.  Besides z-axis technologies, the industry continues to work on the database to make dispatchable location — or providing an address along with floor, apartment or suite number — a reality.  Device manufacturers are also working on technologies to provide accurate location information.  I reiterate my firm belief that we must promote technological neutrality and that wireless providers should have a choice of solutions and vendors that they can utilize to meet our rules,” Mr. O’Rielly added.

“In light of recent press reports, I will also restate my concern that location accuracy information should not be used in any way to infringe on the rights of American citizens.  This location accuracy proceeding is about providing first responders with life-saving information, not a vehicle to aggregate location information that can be provided to others.  This data should not be made available for use by government agencies to locate, monitor, or take actions that are harmful to Americans,” Mr. O’Rielly said.

He added that he appreciates “the questions added by the new Office of Economics and Analytics to facilitate a more thorough cost-benefit analysis.  I am very pleased that, although there is discussion of the Commission’s past use of the flawed value of a statistical life standard, the item seeks to elicit data on the various z-axis options presented in the record so that we can do an appropriate cost-benefit analysis to inform the Commission’s decision making.”

“Originally, the wireless industry proposed that our vertical location accuracy metric should be plus or minus 5 meters,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai noted. “But based on the results of the tests that have been conducted to date as well as the input of public safety officials, I believe that a more stringent proposal is justified, and I have every expectation that our proposal will give our nation’s first responders the information they need to save lives.”

“Given the state of the technology, the wireless providers proposed that we require height accuracy data to be reported to PSAPs within five meters. The public safety community rejected this, arguing that three-meter accuracy is technically feasible and would allow first-responders to get to the right floor the first time in many more cases. We sided with the public safety community,” Commissioner Brendan Carr said. “Furthermore, we preserved the option to choose an even more stringent standard than three-meter accuracy based on the record that develops. I look forward to additional submissions from technologists educating the Commission on the feasibility of the height standards we consider between this Notice and the order.”

“Wireless providers have made significant progress enhancing 9-1-1 location accuracy capabilities and continue to develop and evaluate innovative solutions. We are encouraged by the FCC’s efforts to provide certainty around expectations and requirements to deliver vertical location information, such as z-axis,” said Matt Gerst, vice president-regulatory affairs for CTIA.

Dan Henry, director-government relations for NENA, said his group “applauds the FCC’s adoption of an NPRM on vertical location-accuracy metrics. 9-1-1 location-accuracy improvements — especially those that allow 9-1-1 to dispatch field responders to a specific floor in a building — will enable more exact emergency response and save countless lives when implemented. NENA thanks the FCC for its continued leadership on this critical issue.”

“Public safety appreciates and commends Chairman Pai pushing this FNPRM,” a public safety veteran told TR Daily in an e-mail. “In public safety’s view, 3 meters is certainly preferable to the carriers’ proposal of 5 meters and moves the needle in the right direction towards getting more precise vertical location accuracy. Plus or minus 5 meters can result in several floors above or below where the caller may be. This is unacceptable to public safety. Ultimately, public safety wants same floor accuracy which in many situations may be less than 3 meters. Commissioner Rosenworcel dissented, calling for the same floor. We agree that ‘same floor’ accuracy is the ultimate goal, but I hope commissioners don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, and I’m concerned that if the FCC were to reject the 3 meter requirement in the Notice, we could potentially have no vertical requirement. … A final rule should call for the same floor but set 3 meters initially but require carriers to do better as technology advances and readdress the z-axis in a set timeframe.”

Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, said his organization applauds “the FCC for taking allegations that carriers have both misused, and failed to adequately protect, information collected under the previous Enhanced 911 (E911) geolocation mandate seriously by addressing these privacy concerns in the FNPRM. We especially appreciate Commissioner Starks’ work to champion this issue on behalf of consumers.

“We welcome the FCC’s move to ensure that carriers protect this geolocation information, and hope the agency will consider whether new precautions should be required to shield consumer privacy,” Mr. Feld added. “Just as agency silence translates to the sound of the dinner bell to unethical location services and to carriers eager to sell out their customers, agency action sends a clear warning that carriers must embrace their responsibilities or face real consequences. We hope the FCC will quickly conclude its investigation into the current allegations, and we look forward to working with the FCC to improve the protection of sensitive geolocation data intended for first responders.”- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily