FCC mandates more stringent E911 compliance

Vote obligates wireless operators to test compliance with location-accuracy rules at local level instead of at statewide level.

The wireless industry is reacting sharply to new federal rules that will require carriers to test on a local level how easily emergency operators can find 911 callers.

Late Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission voted on rules that require operators like AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA to test their enhanced 911 service at the local level instead of just at the statewide or multistate level by 2012.

Enhanced 911, or E11, services, provide location information to 911 operators when an emergency call is made. FCC rules require systems to identify a caller's location within 150 yards to 300 yards 95 percent of the time, depending on the technology used.

Currently, wireless carriers average their compliance with this rule over an entire state or multistate region. But the new rules require wireless operators to meet these requirements within every 911 calling area. Carriers have five years to comply.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said that averaging accuracy over a region or state is inadequate.

"Providing location accuracy information on a multistate or statewide basis does not provide public safety with the information it needs to do its job effectively," he said in a statement. "Meeting location accuracy standards on average in the entire state of New York by providing enhanced 911 capability in Manhattan does not help first responders in Buffalo."

The wireless phone industry argues that requiring compliance on the local level will be too costly and will actually detract from the industry's efforts to provide accurate location information to emergency workers.

"CTIA and the wireless industry are committed to improving location accuracy," Steve Largent, president of wireless industry group CTIA, said in a statement. The "action by the commission will hamper that important effort."

Largent added that he believes the rules will "lead to unrealistic--and potentially harmful--consumer expectations."

The FCC has recently been cracking down on carriers that do not meet the current E911 rules. In August, it levied fines totaling $2.8 million to three wireless carriers--Sprint Nextel, Alltel and U.S. Cellular--for failing to meet a December 31, 2005, mandate to provide E911 service to 95 percent of their networks.

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