Cellular Location – The Holy Grail of 911

For an Audio Version of this BLOG >[CLICK HERE]<

States have passed new marijuana legalization laws but it’s not these new laws prompting 9-1-1 call takers to question “how high are you?” Under the leadership of acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, the Federal Communications Commission, recently flexed its federal muscle reasserting the wireless location accuracy rules established in 2015. The Commission settled on a new effective date of April 3, 2022, and the network certifications due June 2, 2022. As a penalty for missing this year’s deadlines, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon committed to paying a fine of $100,000.00 each.

Agreement Albeit Unhappy
After the decision was made public, differing opinions surfaced at the Commission about the decision not being shared internally, prior to public release. A joint statement issued by FCC Commissioners Carr and Simington this past Thursday questioned the action. Despite the FCC having secured commitments from wireless carriers that they would be able to identify the location of 9-1-1 callers within three vertical meters for 80% of all covered calls by April 2021, there was a failure of the carriers to deliver on their promise. Under the new consent decrees, carriers now have an extra year to meet the commitments (April 3 and June 2, 2022, respectively), although they now have just seven days to deliver Z-Axis where possible to ECCs.

The FCC issued a statement saying, “To improve public safety and significantly speed up nationwide implementation of vertical location information, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau reached settlements with AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon that resolve the investigations [of failing to meet those deadlines].

The settlements require each company to start providing wireless 9-1-1 callers’ z-axis location information to 9-1-1 call centers within seven days; to implement a compliance plan that includes specific testing, reporting, and public interest conditions; and to pay a $100,000 settlement amount.”

For an Audio Version of this BLOG >[CLICK HERE]<

Why is the Z-axis important? Think of a caller in a tall building with ten floors. If I calculate their X-AXIS and Y-AXIS position, the caller could be on any one of 10 floors. To establish the floor where a person is located, a third element is needed for a standard cartesian measurement: the Z-AXIS, or altitude.

The Next Obvious Question?

Why is a Z-AXIS so elusive and challenging for 9-1-1 call takers to calculate? Carriers developed the 9-1-1 network to allow Public Safety to respond to locations plotted on a 2D map. ECC call-takers used this flat map where the X and Y coordinates correlated the calling party’s position, mapping it to a street address. As devices became more mobile and nomadic, and the bulk of 911 calls originated from cellular phones, altitude, and location, in general, became more and more critical to the emergency call taker. To understand why determining altitude is difficult to calculate, we need to step back to our grade school science classes for a refresher.

Can You Sea My Point?
Measuring altitude is not as easy as it may seem. Altitude is measured by barometric pressure, and since barometric pressure changes drastically with the weather, a common starting point needs to be established as Ground Zero. Imagine trying to measure the height of a tree, and while you start at the grass, someone else starts 10 feet above the grass. Even though both of you will measure the endpoint at the top of the tree, the measurements will be 10 feet apart. Based on this, a commonly understood starting point needs to be established that all can follow, so all measurements start at the same place.

For an Audio Version of this BLOG >[CLICK HERE]<

A similar problem happens with aircraft, and that’s why all pilots reference altitude above sea level and pilots adjust the base barometric pressure of each airport before they land. This ensures that their altimeter readings are in alignment with each other. While that may be possible in measuring altitude above the ground, it means that the system is reporting altitude, and the systems reading the altitude need to be synchronized, not always an easy task as barometric pressure changes with the weather. GPS signals can also be utilized. However, radio waves can be affected by concrete and steel reflections, again causing artificial interference that may skew an altitude reading. So, while the Holy Grail for 9-1-1 remains to be accurate altitude, and the FCC is moving forward with carriers demanding that information today, the fact of the matter is it may be inaccurate.

Another issue is the problem of communicating altitude, converting it to the local distance above the ground, especially if a building has a different elevation in the front or the back of the building. What side is considered the “baseline,” as that’s required for an accurate calculation.

The Moral of the Story?

It just isn’t simple, or the development of the feature would do it already. However, like so many other things, there are so many different nuances to technology, operational deployment, training, and a whole slew of other factors that constantly blur the lines of information. Like anything else that’s new, NENA, EENA, and different development organizations need to add the appropriate standards to their agenda so that industry partners have direction and specifications to build too. Without that guidance, it will turn into the wild west of technology, with very little of it being compatible and interoperable with industry friends and neighbors. Levels of accuracy, protocol formats, and transmission specifications are all important points that need to be worked out sooner than later. Not to mention that this opens up yet another attack face for cybercriminals to disrupt our public safety networks, potentially spoofing location data into real call events, redirecting services away from a disaster instead of towards it.

For an Audio Version of this BLOG >[CLICK HERE]<

Fortunately, next-generation 911 networks are being built today in over 20 states, with more and more coming on board in an attempt to streamline efficiencies and increase operational functionality with a new IP-based architecture. With this comes a paved superhighway for Public Safety information to flow from originating networks to the public safety consuming networks, and ultimately right on down to the smart devices carried by emergency response personnel. So, the highway is being built, the plans for incredibly fast and efficient vehicles are on the drawing board, and we’re ready to go to the races.

REMEMBER, while next-generation 9-1-1 is an end-to-end architecture, it is also a complex recipe with many, many chefs in the kitchen. At this point, it’s critical that technologists work together to build a solution that will save lives without overloading first responders with useless data. While the FCC touted the settlements last week, requiring carriers to deliver within seven days wireless 9-1-1 callers’ z-axis location information to 9-1-1 call centers everywhere they are capable of delivering the data, and of implementing compliance plans for testing and reporting, and to pay a $100,000 settlement amount, half of the FCC Commissioners Carr and Simington feel, “The FCC is letting wireless carriers off the hook in exchange for $100,000 and a promise to provide whatever vertical location information they may have — however inaccurate it may be,” and that the agreement was negotiated without any input from their offices. In their opinion, it’s a “[B]ad deal for public safety.”


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Be sure to check out my Blogs and Podcasts on: Fletch.TV


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