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Battle Continues to Bring Mobile E911 Up to the Present

I stifle a chuckle when I listen to presentations on the burgeoning business for ensuring E911 compliance for multiline telephone systems (MLTS). I realize that failing to meet these requirements can expose companies to serious liabilities, and providing employees with a functional E911 calling capability is essential. However, as has been reported elsewhere, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) estimates that 80% of 911 calls now originate from mobile devices... so in the end, MLTS likely account for an almost meaningless percentage of total 911 calls.

It's difficult to think of any public safety technology initiative that's directly responsible for saving so many lives as Enhanced 911 (E911), which provides public-safety answering point (PSAP) or 911 centers with the caller's location. In large part this can be attributed to an operating philosophy in the PSAP industry that espouses a zero allowable tolerance for failure. The challenge in improving E911 going forward is to address mobile E911 location accuracy and to render the FCC's ridiculously lax requirements for mobile accuracy irrelevant.





The FCC's 2015 requirements for mobile E911 accuracy specify providing either a dispatchable address or x/y accuracy within 50 meters for an increasing percentage of mobile calls. Specifically, the requirements call for that level of accuracy on:

  • 40% of calls by 2017
  • 50% of calls by 2018
  • 60% of calls by 2019
  • 70% of calls by 2020
  • 80% of calls by 2021

When compared to the level of accuracy consumers have come to expect from commercial services like Uber, Waze, and Google Maps, that level of performance is appalling -- and that disparity hasn't gone unnoticed in the PSAP industry. There's a growing movement within and beyond the PSAP industry to bring mobile E911 into the current century. Taking the lead on the commercial front is a company called RapidSOS, which I wrote about last year for No Jitter.

To improve mobile E911 accuracy, RapidSOS wants to commercialize the use of consumer location technologies that incorporate GPS plus Wi-Fi. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, RapidSOS has some powerful backers, including former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who has signed on as an official advisor, as well as former FCC chairmen Julius Genachowski and Dennis Patrick, who have become investors.

RapidSOS admits that its initial plan to install a 911 app on everyone's phone failed, and it's come to recognize the challenge of integrating new technologies into the variety of 911 systems now in place. However, it has had some success in getting its technology installed in a handful of 911 centers. That market is dominated by specialized suppliers like Motorola Solutions, which actually happens to be an investor in RapidSOS.

In an obvious attempt to garner public support for its technology, RapidSOS has been undertaking a significant -- and successful -- PR initiative. The company has won support from some important allies, including Uber and, now, Apple.

Uber recently announced that it would be adding a 911 button in its app. Having a separate button to dial 911 adds little value, but if you use that button in trial sites for the RapidSOS location technology, the PSAP receives that more accurate cellular location. RapidSOS is testing the technology in Denver,Colo.; Charleston, S.C.; Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Naples, Fla.

And now Apple is getting into the act. The company this week announced that it too will begin delivering that type of accurate location information to PSAPs in a later version of its iOS software. Apple is expected to release iOS 12 this fall, though the company hasn't been specific as to whether this new capability would be available in the initial release.

Also uncertain is in which cities the more accurate location would be available, but Apple may be holding off until the delivery date draws nearer and RapidSOS has signed on more PSAPs. In the meantime, the Apple-RapidSOS announcement includes a pitch for consumers to begin lobbying their states to connect to the NG911 clearinghouse and pushes the idea that the integration can be a relatively simple matter.

Late last year, I polled the four major carriers regarding their plans to integrate with RapidSOS, and found that while they were all aware of the company and its offerings, none had any plans of moving forward with it. Rather, the carriers preferred to go with the plan being put forth by the PSAP industry.

The PSAP industry's plan for improving mobile E911 accuracy involves two main elements: an improved handset location technology called Device-based Hybrid (DBH) and a National Emergency Address Database (NEAD).

DBH is a location solution that incorporates Wi-Fi location information in conjunction with the current Assisted GPS (A-GPS) and the requirement to transmit that information on 911 calls. The carriers are now adding DBH capability to the requirements they publish to handset manufacturers.

The other element is the ability to match an address to that Wi-Fi access point. CTIA, the cellular industry trade association, has created the NEAD in collaboration with public safety community representatives. West Safety Services will operate the NEAD.

While DBH-capable handsets can report on Wi-Fi access points they see, using that information for public safety dispatch requires that the addresses of those access points be verified. To that end, NEAD is seeking organizations that run large Wi-Fi networks -- cable companies, enterprises, public institutions, etc. -- to contribute their AP address data to the database.

The 2015 FCC location requirements also call for vertical location (i.e., the "z-axis"), a key element in locating callers in tall buildings. GPS can determine altitude if four satellites are visible; however, any indoor location capability is severely impaired with satellite-based GPS.

Vertical location will call for barometers in mobile devices, and for now, the accuracy of those components is all over the lot. The ability to ascertain vertical location can also have an impact on a variety of consumer applications, so the handset industry has a ready incentive to push this forward -- funny how that works.

How all of this shakes out is yet to be determined, though I'm very much behind RapidSOS' campaign to bring this issue forward in the public consciousness. The one point that all reasonable people can agree on is that the mess surrounding location capabilities for mobile 911 callers has gone on far too long. PSAPs are a critical national resource whose value has been nosediving for decades coincident with rising dependency on mobile phones.

While acknowledged experts in 911 communications might be embarrassed to admit they've fallen behind in delivering a service that's relevant in a world that has fully evolved to mobile communications, the machinery is clearly getting into motion. It's difficult to say if private companies like RapidSOS will play a role in that evolution; however, they are taking charge of the PR initiative and we thank them for that.

The major role will fall to the PSAP industry, which must take what is a great national resource, our E911 system, and bring it into the mobile age while not sacrificing its "zero tolerance for failure" philosophy. That philosophy and the industry's ability to deliver on it is what has made E911 service one of the key public safety technology initiatives people have come to trust.