Getting 9-1-1 Location Accuracy Right for Public Safety and Consumers

How the Wireless Industry is Invested, Committed and Making Progress

Getting 9-1-1 Location Accuracy Right for Public Safety and Consumers

February 3, 2017

For more than 20 years, wireless consumers have used cellphones to call 9-1-1 for help during an emergency. During that time, wireless providers developed the capabilities to deliver location information that helps public safety respond to emergencies, wherever and whenever wireless 9-1-1 calls are made.

We’ve successfully used wireless location technologies built specifically for 9‑1‑1 purposes, but the wireless industry, public safety and the FCC are working to bring 9-1-1 into the 21st century by harnessing the commercial wireless location services consumers use every day, especially indoors.

Today, wireless carriers updated the FCC on their progress towards enhancing indoor wireless 9‑1‑1 location accuracy.  The progress reports submitted today clearly show those wireless provider’s commitment and engagement, and demonstrate that we’re on the road to enhancing our wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy capabilities, especially indoors.

With our public safety partners, CTIA and our member companies are—and will remain—committed to constantly improving our nation’s 9-1-1 system. There is so much investment and activity around 9-1-1 and wireless right now, we wanted to try to put these efforts into greater context. 

Wireless Connectivity Saves Lives. Wireless phones—and the mobile connectivity inherent to them—represent the most important safety tool developed since 9-1-1 was introduced nearly 50 years ago. In your hand, wherever you get a wireless signal, you have the ability to seek help—from family, friends, or emergency responders.  Whether your car breaks down late at night or you break your ankle while hiking, wireless can provide a lifeline.

And every year, more people turn to their mobile device to reach 9-1-1. In 2016, nearly 240 million 9-1-1 calls were placed, and roughly 70 percent of those were wireless.

However, unlike 9-1-1 calls from landline phones—which provide the caller’s phone number and associated street address to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs)—there’s a unique variable with 9-1-1 calls placed from wireless devices: the person calling could be located anywhere, from a major highway to the 6th floor of a high-rise.

That information—an estimate of a 9-1-1 caller’s location, available to PSAPs from the wireless service provider when a 9-1-1 call is initiated—is known as wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy.

While wireless 9-1-1 location technologies have helped first responders save lives for more than 20 years, consumers have integrated new commercial location-based services (LBS) into their daily lives. These commercial LBS services have created incredible opportunities. For example, if you use a ride-share or pizza delivery app, you can drop a location pin and enter your address in the app; the service then uses the location information that you’ve provided to get you where you’re going or deliver your (hopefully) hot pizza.

Wireless 9-1-1 location is different. There are more pieces to the puzzle, more diverse calling environments, and more stakeholders involved. Plus, the stakes are much higher when you consider how that location information needs to get first responders to your emergency quickly, effectively and safely. So, consider the following.

The Complexity of Wireless 9-1-1 Location Accuracy. Across the U.S., over 300 million mobile devices—with different capabilities, from first generation smartphones to the most up-to-date smartphone—are used to call 9-1-1, while over 6,000 different 9-1-1 centers or PSAPs—with varying technical capabilities and legal authorities—respond to these 9-1-1 calls. And while America’s geography is wonderfully diverse—from dense urban environments to rural landscapes—location-based technologies for 9-1-1 calls are used across them all. When a PSAP receives a wireless 9-1-1 call and requests location information, wireless providers work hard to ensure that all parts of devices, networks, and servers work together to deliver actionable information to the PSAP, usually within 30 seconds.

But there’s another variable: the great indoors. The FCC’s existing rules for wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy, developed over a decade ago, were premised on the idea that most wireless 9-1-1 calls were being placed outside. After all, according to the CDC, only about 5% of households in 2003 were wireless-only, while that number was closer to 50% in 2015. And wireless provider data from 2013 showed that even then, more than 90% of wireless calls to 9-1-1 generated location information that met the FCC’s requirements.

Today we use our mobile devices everywhere, including indoors. And anyone who has tried downloading a podcast on an underground subway or continuing a call in an elevator can tell you that wireless coverage is trickier indoors.

Using the same location solutions that were designed for outdoor wireless 9-1-1 calls, we face similar challenges when attempting to estimate a wireless 9-1-1 caller’s indoor location.  Inside a building there are just more things in the way of GPS and other wireless network signals. These can be physical, like walls and furniture, or environmental, like changing weather or large buildings and trees, which interrupt wireless signals.

Complicated building plans and multi-story buildings add another wrinkle. Your ride-share service, after all, doesn’t pick you up in a conference room in the middle of the 5th floor. But a 9-1-1 call could come from one. PSAPs also generally have maps to generate a location to dispatch first responders, but don’t have interior maps of every building.

This technological reality—indoor wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy—is the challenge that the FCC’s 2015 Order asks wireless providers and the public safety industry to address over the next decade. That’s why the wireless industry and public safety leaders have been working hand-in-hand for the past two years to identify and develop solutions to the indoor location accuracy challenge. Here’s an overview of what we’ve done.

Our Commitment to—and Progress Toward—Enhancing Indoor 9-1-1 Location Accuracy. After the FCC’s 2015 Order, CTIA led the wireless industry and public safety representatives in a collaborative, on-going effort to meet the FCC’s new wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy requirements. Specifically, CTIA has focused on two key initiatives.

First, CTIA is working with other stakeholders to develop a National Emergency Address Database (NEAD) that will support wireless providers’ ability to provide PSAPs with dispatchable location information: a street address of the wireless caller and—when necessary to adequately identify the caller’s location indoors—more information like an apartment, office, or suite number.

Just like the commercial LBS services that we all use today, the NEAD will house the location information of Wi-Fi access points and Bluetooth beacons. The NEAD enables wireless providers to harness wireless technologies used indoors to solve an indoor wireless 9-1-1 location challenge, while delivering the most useful indoor caller location to public safety: a street address.

Today, we are excited that the NEAD is taking a critical step forward in implementation by submitting a Privacy & Security Plan for FCC approval. This plan will, among other things, demonstrate that the NEAD’s information will be used solely for 9-1-1 purposes and will open the door for the next stage in development and implementation.

Second, the FCC required that the wireless industry establish a Test Bed—a technology proving ground—to independently verify how existing and new wireless location-based technologies perform in a set of real-world, indoor environments. We take this responsibility seriously and have invested in test bed capabilities in two regions to test the full range of different real-world challenges wireless and public safety face. 

So far the Test Bed has found that the GPS solutions carriers use today for 9‑1‑1 location accuracy perform well indoors in urban, suburban and rural areas, while device-based hybrid solutions that utilize indoor wireless signals, like Wi-Fi, show the most promise to improve indoor wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy in dense urban areas. We are also encouraged that innovative companies are using the Test Bed to independently demonstrate how their technologies perform indoors, and we invite more vendors to submit their solutions to the Test Bed for evaluation.

The multi-million dollar investments in the NEAD and Test Bed exemplify the wireless industry’s efforts to continue to enhance 9-1-1 solutions, and the collaboration with innovative solutions vendors and public safety ensure that we’re getting it done right.  

We all turn to wireless in an emergency, but we may take for granted how much work and effort goes into supporting the ability of our nation’s complex 9-1-1 system to save lives.

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