COVID-19 delays tests for 911 location technology

COVID-19 is preventing field technicians from entering buildings where they need to test more accurate 911 location technology.

Implementing better technology for determining the location of 911 wireless callers inside buildings has been a challenge for years. GPS is unreliable for finding callers inside, and it’s a big problem for emergency responders who need to find which floor a 911 call is coming from inside multi-story buildings. 

To address that, the FCC last year established the vertical, or z-axis, location accuracy metric as plus or minus three meters relative to the handset for 80% of indoor wireless 911 calls.

National wireless providers like AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon must meet April 2021 and April 2023 deadlines for deploying z-axis technology, which must comply with the metric for accuracy, in the top 25 and 50 markets, respectively. The FCC affirmed those deadlines in July of this year.

RELATED: FCC moves to improve location accuracy of 911 callers in multi-story buildings

On Friday, CTIA, on behalf of the 9-1-1 Location Technologies Test Bed, told the FCC in a filing (PDF) that the next round of testing 911 z-axis location technologies will be delayed due to the impact of COVID-19. The testing process involves going into office buildings, apartments/condominiums, hotels and event venues to conduct simulated 911 calls in different areas within the buildings.

Each stage of testing has typically involved access to about 50 buildings across multiple regions. After several months and outreach to more than 450 building managers, only three buildings provided what CTIA described as “positive feedback.”

“The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has created significant challenges to safely gaining access to test buildings for field collection teams across multiple test cities, including Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle,” CTIA said.

In residential buildings, most building owners are not willing to let anyone in for testing, and access to individual tenant units poses a further challenge. In commercial buildings, property managers largely have been unresponsive or expressed similar reservations about testing at this time, according to CTIA.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has literally stalled access to building interiors that are essential to the testing process,” the association said, adding that the test bed administrators appreciate that the FCC’s most recent order recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic could impact testing.

CTIA said the next stage of testing will resume when it can safely be accomplished and property managers agree to provide access to buildings in the test cities.