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Some 911 operators aren't getting cell phone location data - who is to blame?

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Mike Dano

There is mounting evidence that a large and growing number of the nation's 911 operators aren't able to locate your cell phone when you call 911. This despite FCC rules dating way back to 2006 that wireless carriers need to provide 911 operators with the latitude and longitude coordinates, within 300 meters, of all mobile 911 callers.

What's the problem here? Basically, it seems there are technical problems in the communications between wireless carriers and 911 operators--wireless carriers argue they're providing the location of 911 callers, but 911 operators aren't able to receive the data.

And who's to blame for this? Let's save that for later.

First, this is an extremely important issue: According to the FCC, of the roughly 240 million 911 calls placed each year, 70 percent come from wireless phones. And while it's true that location data isn't necessary for some of those calls--911 operators usually ask callers where they are anyway--location data could be critical for callers who are injured or who might not know where they are.

And, according to recently released data, many 911 operators--those tasked with dispatching police and ambulances--are not getting good location information. Specifically, they're only getting "Phase I" location data (the location of the caller's cell tower, which could cover several square miles and which would be totally useless in a dense urban area like San Francisco) rather than the more accurate "Phase II" data that would provide the caller's location to within 300 meters.

Although there have been anecdotal reports for years of 911 operators having troubles obtaining Phase II location data, the issue blew open in August when Danita Crombach, president of the California Chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (CalNENA), sent a letter to the FCC claiming that more than 55 percent of the 1.6 million wireless 911 calls made in California in March 2013 did not have accurate Phase II location data.

Even more shockingly, Crombach named names: She said AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) provided Phase II location data only 20 percent of the time; Sprint (NYSE:S) did 21 percent of the time; T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) did 10 percent of the time and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) did 37 percent of the time.

As you can imagine, this letter sent shockwaves through the wireless carrier industry.

But what's more troubling is that it appears California is not alone. According to FCC data reported by the Find Me 911 coalition, more than two-thirds of all wireless 911 calls in Texas this summer were delivered without Phase II location information. Jamie Barnett, a former chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau and director of the Find Me 911 Coalition, said that it's difficult to obtain nationwide data on the phenomena, but that the group is planning to release similar findings on other cities and states in the weeks and months ahead. (Update: In an FCC filing, Verizon took issue with the Find Me coalition's findings in Texas.)

So what's the deal?

In filings to the FCC in response to Crombach's letter, the nation's wireless carriers widely argued that they are indeed meeting the FCC's Phase II Enhanced 911 rules, which require them to deliver the latitude and longitude coordinates within 300 meters of 911 callers.

The problem, the carriers argue, is that 911 operators (which are called "Public Safety Answering Points," or PSAPs, in industry jargon) aren't properly requesting 911 callers' location data.

"The standards require AT&T and other wireless carriers to deliver the Phase II location information to their Global Mobile Location Center (GMLC) and requires the PSAP to pull it by querying their Automatic Location Information (ALI) database--a request that is often referred to as a 'bid,'" AT&T wrote in one of its FCC fillings on the topic. "While CalNENA's data suggests that Phase II location information is not being delivered to PSAPs, the data does not demonstrate that Phase II location information is not made available to the PSAPs."

Basically, AT&T and other carriers said they can't provide Phase II 911 location data immediately and so 911 operators need to refresh (or "re-bid" in the jargon) the location data they have in order to get the best results. AT&T said it actually provides Phase II location data 99 percent of the time, but that it can take 30 seconds or longer to do so.

So why is this issue coming up now? That's a bit unclear, and could be due to a couple of factors. First, more 911 calls may be coming from inside buildings, where it's much more technically challenging to obtain accurate location data. Also, as carriers have upgraded from 2G to 3G to 4G networks, the way they supply location data to 911 operators has changed. And it seems that in some cases, the carriers didn't effectively communicate the details about those changes. Or the PSAPs didn't effectively listen.

So who is to blame? It depends on who you ask:

"Some have tried to blame the 911 operators, but that is a diversion from the impact of these data, and it is not fair to the 911 professionals," Barnett said in a release. "This cannot simply be chalked up to 'rebidding' to request location information again during the call. A 911 operator shouldn't have to wait and rebid and wait and rebid to hope they eventually get accurate location information."

On the other hand:

"The PSAP itself is responsible for retrieving the Phase II data from the 'Mobile Positioning Center' (MPC), a designated point at the carrier's network, via a query or 'bid' to the PSAP's own ALI database," Verizon wrote in an FCC filing. "While wireless carriers 'push' Phase II location data to the MPC, the PSAPs must 'pull' that data in order for them to have access to it on call-takers' screens."

When I talked to Barnett about this topic, he made it clear that this is a serious problem, but he said the Find Me 911 Coalition isn't focusing on placing blame. Instead, the group is pushing the FCC to expand its E911 rules beyond what the Phase II rules require. He said that close to half of all 911 calls come from inside a building, and it's important for police, firefighters and other emergency personnel to know exactly where in that building a caller is calling from. Thus, the Find Me 911 Coalition is recommending the FCC require the use of more accurate location technologies--like Uplink Time Difference of Arrival (U-TDOA), Advanced Forward Link Trilateration (AFLT), RF Pattern Matching, Terrestrial Beacon Transmitters, Observed Time Difference of Arrival (O-TDOA) or others--that help 911 operators know exactly where a 911 caller is, even inside a skyscraper. Barnett said addressing the indoor location problem likely would also help smooth the current Phase II problems.

"Someone needs to fix this stuff," Barnett explained.

It's hard to disagree with Barnett, particularly in an age when cell phones now double as cameras, wallets, video game consoles, books, music players and TVs. Further, the FCC is evaluating a number of upgrades to the 911 system, from adding text messages to 911 to a full-blown overhaul of 911 that would support pictures, videos and other media. In a recent interview with my colleague Phil Goldstein, incoming FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler did acknowledge the importance of E911, but he didn't address the recent reports about Phase II troubles.

The bottom line is that if Twitter, Facebook, Google Now and Siri know exactly where I am, 911 operators also should be able to access that information when I call 911. --Mike | +MikeDano | @mikeddano

There's an interesting addendum to this story: TruePosition, a company that sells location services to wireless carriers, provided the initial funding for the Find Me 911 Coalition. This could be viewed as a sneaky way to get regulators to require carriers to upgrade their location technology by purchasing new services from vendors like TruePosition. But, as Barnett notes, the Find Me 911 advocates technology-neutral requirements, and also is supported by 145,000 911 professionals and public safety officers.

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