Bureau Report Details Hurdles Facing 911 Over Wi-Fi

 Courtesy ~ TR Daily

The FCC submitted a report to Congress yesterday saying that while Wi-Fi could be used to expand 911 connectivity options for consumers, public safety answering points (PSAPs), and communications providers in the long term, there are currently limits to the feasibility of doing so.  

Further study of “technical and policy challenges” is needed “before the conditions in the evolving Wi-Fi ecosystem will support reliable provision of 911 services over Wi-Fi access points and spectrum for unlicensed devices,” said the report. 

The FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau compiled the report after receiving comments in PS docket 20-285 (TR Daily, Oct. 2, 2020) following a public notice issued pursuant to the RAY BAUM’S Act of 2018 (TR Daily, March 23, 2018). 

The bureau said recent improvements in the provision of voice and broadband connectivity over Wi-Fi for non-emergency communications could support improved emergency communications, but noted several issues cited by commenters that would need to be resolved first. 

“Existing Wi-Fi and unlicensed infrastructure typically are not engineered to provide the resiliency and reliability needed to support communications in a major emergency and are likely to be affected by many of the same conditions that impair mobile networks in such circumstances (e.g., power outages, physical damage to infrastructure from storms, floods, or wildfires),” the report said. “In addition, opening these platforms to the public for purposes of 911 access would require modifying or disabling authentication protocols and other safeguards, which could result in increased vulnerability.” 

The bureau also said standards to support 911 services using Wi-Fi would need to be developed and adopted before Wi-Fi 911 services would be possible.  

“Such standards are crucial to the development of a cohesive end-to-end system that can support the necessary interactions between mobile devices, cellular networks, Wi-Fi networks, and PSAPs when a 911 call is made,” it said. “Further work is also needed to enable mobile devices to be automatically authenticated, automatically roam across telecommunication service provider and non-telecommunication service provider owned Wi-Fi access points, and be routed to the appropriate PSAP with accurate caller location information.”  

The report also noted some commenters expressed the view there would need to be legal and regulatory changes to address liability, privacy, and security concerns about making Wi-Fi available for 911 use.  

“The record reflects that the complex and competitive nature of today’s communications ecosystem impacts 911 service over Wi-Fi access points and spectrum for unlicensed devices,” the report said.  

In addition, it said, commenters noted that cable operators are prohibited from collecting some personal information about subscribers without prior consent, which could limit their ability to provide location information in an emergency situation to a PSAP. 

The bureau also pointed to concerns that enabling automatic authentication of unknown devices to Wi-Fi access points raises cybersecurity concerns for both network operators and consumers.  

The report said the bureau could not estimate at this time the costs or benefits of providing 911 service over Wi-Fi because of the “significant technical and policy changes” that would have to take place. —Jeff Williams 

FCC Federal News Wireless Deployment Public Safety