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FCC Tries to Help Emergency Responders Find 911 Cellphone Callers

blurAZ/Shutterstock.com

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to move ahead with a proposal to require cellphone carriers to provide more accurate information about the location of 911 calls.

Telephone companies already have to inform 911 call centers about the location of landline callers, and there are also federal standards to ensure that emergency responders can find cell-phone callers when they are outdoors. But there are currently no requirements for location accuracy for indoor 911 cell-phone callers.

With more than 70 percent of 911 calls now coming from cell phones, poor location information is making it increasingly difficult for officials to respond to emergencies. Finding a caller inside of a large multistory building is a particular problem, the commission found.

The proposal would require carriers to locate 911 callers within 50 meters of their location horizontally and within three-meter verticals, which would essentially allow emergency responders to know which floor of a building the call was coming from.

The carriers would have to meet the horizontal standard accuracy for 67 percent of calls within two years and 80 percent of calls with five years. The carriers would have three years to meet the vertical accuracy requirement for 67 percent calls and five years for 80 percent of calls.

Ajit Pai and Michael O'Reilly, the two Republicans on the five-member commission, applauded the new standards but worried that the commission was setting an unrealistic timeline.

"Carriers cannot begin to deploy a technology solution that does not yet exist," Pai said. "And the public should not be led to rely on a promise that cannot be kept."

But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler had little sympathy for the Republicans' concerns.

"Hey, we're dealing with human life," he said.

Wheeler argued that it's "never wrong to overreach" on public safety, but he said the commission will remain flexible if technological problems arise.

The FCC will review comments on the proposal before voting on final regulations.

(Image via blurAZ/Shutterstock.com)

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