Four notable developments in indoor location during 2021

This year was supposed to mark a major milestone in the ability to locate wireless devices indoors when callers dial 911, so that first responders can reach them faster. It didn’t quite pan out that way; development and implementation of the technologies that enable this is moving more slowly than anticipated. But it is moving. And here are some of the most recent notable developments related to mobile location, particularly indoors.

-The year started off with national wireless operators asking the Federal Communications Commission to delay its April 2021 deadline for implementation of new requirements around delivering in-building vertical (also called z-axis) location for wireless 911 callers, citing technical issues and lost testing time due to the pandemic. The FCC rejected those calls—and as soon as the deadline passed, it started an investigation into whether operators had complied with the deadline and concluded they had not. This led to settlements with the three national operators, announced in June, which required each company to start providing any available z-axis location information to 911 call centers within seven days, implement a compliance plan with specific testing and reporting conditions; and to pay a $100,000 settlement amount. An FCC spokesperson told RCR Wireless News that the carriers are in compliance with those settlements, which also require that by April 2022, the carriers must meet the conditions that they were supposed to meet in April 2021.

-Beyond the regulatory front, there were a couple of particularly notable acquisitions in positioning. In June, Verizon bought precise positioning company Senion to bolster its capabilities in this area for enterprise applications—while operators are being required to provide better indoor location for 911, they clearly also see a commercial business case for this capabiliy. Meanwhile, Motorola Solutions recently announced that it has acquired E911 location provider 911 Datamaster for an undisclosed sum, to bolster its location capabilities as part of its 911 call center solutions and Public Safety Answering Points’ needs in the transition to NG911.

-At the chip level, Qualcomm announced in June that it was enhancing the capabilities of its Qualcomm Location Suite to provide improved horizontal and vertical positioning information and comply with the new FCC rules. “The upgrade will help first responders to better determine the floor within a multi-story building from which an emergency call was placed,” wrote Jean-Michel Rousseau, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, in a blog post on the news. “Being able to locate where an emergency is occurring with a high degree of accuracy is likely to be a gamechanger for emergency service providers and for people who call 911.”

Qualcomm followed up by striking a deal with z-axis information provider Polaris Wireless to offer an integrated solution for feature phones and other devices that aren’t part of the iOS or Android ecosystems, then also made a similar integration deal with NextNav, which also provides z-axis information.

-It was also a big year for NextNav, which went public in a combination with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in a transaction that valued the company at more than a billion dollars. NextNav operates a 3D geolocation service called Pinnacle that it says is available more in the 4,400 cities and towns in the U.S.; it has its own network, called TerraPoiNT, to provide radio positioning and timing information, which has initial deployments in 47 urban centers, according to the company. NextNav also holds nationwide 900 MHz spectrum licenses and a global IP portfolio on the enabling tech.

NextNAv followed up its go-public with a recently announced partnership with Bosch Sensortec, in which Bosch’s barometric pressure sensors will go through a NextNav certification program to certify their ability and accuracy in providing vertical location information for consumer electronics, for a range of use cases. NextNav launched its certification program this year.

-And in, perhaps, a glimpse of what’s ahead for carriers’ positioning capabilities, Huawei announced earlier this year that it was the first to demonstrate and verify 5G indoor positioning capabilities in a live network, working with China Mobile Suzhou to test a metropolitan transportation location in Suzhou, which is a major city on the edge of Jiangsu Province in eastern China. Huawei said that even with hidden radio units, it was able to achieve positioning accuracy between 3 to 5 meters in 90% of the platform and hall areas of the metro station.

Positioning capabilities for 5G were added to Release 16 in mid-2020 and are expected to become even more precise over time and offer a terrestrial alternative to the use of GPS for positioning information. The addition of indoor positioning capabilities to 5G means that carriers will be able to rely on their own cellular networks, not third-party relationships or even other technologies such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth-based beacons, in order to have good indoor positioning data. “This new approach facilitates positioning capability openness to upper-layer applications through MEC, putting telecom carriers a unique position to develop the 5G industrial ecosystem,” Huawei posited in announcing its testing news. “As 5G is quickly expanding to various industries, 5G indoor positioning will enable telecom carriers to provide diversified high-value services to transport hubs, industrial manufacturing, healthcare services, and other applications that hugely depend on accurate location information.”

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