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U.S. telecom agency to improve E911 location guidelines by 2019

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently strengthened the Enhanced 911 (E911) location accuracy rules for wireless carriers and consulted expert opinions on improving both 911 availability and E911 location determination for VoIP services, said agency officials to the press.

The agency said they have begun to enhance the public’s ability to contact emergency services during times of disaster and to enable public safety personnel to obtain more accurate information regarding caller location. 

This issue has been a problem for the VoIP industry. The FCC said E911 technology automatically provides a 911 call operator with the caller’s phone number and location data from either a landline or a wireless phone service. This feature is not automatically built into VoIP. 

Wireless carriers provide E911 location data by either the handset-based method where location data is given by GPS or similar technology installed in the caller’s phone; or a network-based one where location data is determined by triangulating the caller’s wireless signal in relation to nearby cell sites in the carrier’s network. 

While today FCC standards require that wireless carriers have to be able to id the caller’s location for a percentage of 911 calls within a range of 50 to 150 meters for carriers that use handset-based technology, and 100 to 300 meters for carriers that use network-based technology, by early 2019 all existing wireless carriers must meet the more stringent location accuracy standards in the handset-based rule. Any new wireless network carriers will have to meet the handset-based accuracy standards.

The Commission is still indecisive over whether to apply existing 911 rules that cover two-way interconnected VoIP services to outbound interconnected VoIP services, which allow users to place only outbound telephone calls but no receiving calls.

However, according to FCC, they have completed the basics on the first draft of regulations implementing a "next-generation 9-1-1" call system that can accept SMS or text messages. The law is just waiting for the commissioner’s approval.

FCC Public Safety Chief James Barnett told a House panel on emergency preparedness,  "I know it is the number one priority on the chairman's list and on the commissioners' lists, so we are hoping it will be out before the end of 2011 or earlier.”

According to FCC officials, while a growing number of people presume that they can send information via text to contact first responders, only a small part of the local emergency officials are prepared to accept SMS.

A typical scenario is the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, where people hoped to contact emergency personnel just by using SMS/text messaging since it was dangerous for them to make calls.