FCC Votes to Require Carriers to Use Location-Based Routing of 911 Calls

As many as 23 million wireless 911 calls may be mis-routed each year, according to the FCC. Yesterday, Commissioners proposed rules to better target wireless 911 calls and texts to eliminate that problem. 

Historically, wireless 911 calls have been routed to 911 call centers based on the location of the cell tower that handles the call. But if a 911 call is made near a county or a city border—the nearest cell tower may be in a neighboring jurisdiction. That means the call needs to be re-routed, costing critical emergency response time, and wasting resources.   

In 2018, the agency issued a Notice of Inquiry that sought comment on the feasibility of routing 911 calls based on the location of the caller as opposed to the location of the cell tower that handles that call. Earlier this year, the Commission issued a Public Notice to update the record in this proceeding. The FCC cited several advancements in location-based routing technology and some implementation of location-based routing on wireless networks.  

The Commissioners adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to require wireless providers and certain text providers to deploy technology that supports location-based routing on their Internet Protocol (IP)-based networks (i.e., 4G, LTE, 5G, and future generations of IP networks. Other requirements are here

“AT&T completed the rollout of the technology on its network and currently uses location-based routing to deliver 911 calls and texts to nearly all call centers nationwide,” Rachel Wehr, an attorney advisor in the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said during the meeting. T-Mobile told the agency it’s offering location-based routing to more than 700 call centers. Verizon plans to start work in the first quarter of 2023 to enable location-based routing. 

“Jurisdictions where carriers have implemented location-based routing experience fewer mis-routes and faster dispatched times. It is estimated this would reduce it from 23 million to [more than] 3 million misrouted calls a year,” Wehr said.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr described a tour of a 911 call center in Fayetteville, AR last year in which the director said that facility receives about 40,000 calls a year. She told the FCC that roughly 30 percent of those calls are mis-routed “due to calls hitting cell towers that border the Fayetteville jurisdiction with others,” he said.

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks visited a 911 call center in his hometown of Kansas City, KS last month. “They told me about crushing call volumes, staff shortages, complex technology migrations, and cybersecurity challenges. They also told me about the time they spend transferring callers in and out of their jurisdiction,” he said.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the agency needs to make sure that the more than 6,000 Public Safety Answering Points “are not stuck with old systems designed for the era of analog calling. We need everyone to take full advantage of the digital age with emergency communication systems that support voice, text, data, as well as feature more redundancy to prevent outages.”

Rosenworcel reiterated her call for Congress to approve using some of the agency’s proceeds from spectrum auctions to upgrade 911 call centers to Next-Gen technology. The FCC’s spectrum authority is in the fiscal year 2023 appropriations framework being debated this week in Congress, Inside Towers reported. “With our authority still the subject of legislative discussion, this opportunity is out there. I want us to seize it because today is part of a broader and bolder effort to improve 911 for everyone, everywhere,” Rosenworcel said.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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