Commissioners say FCC let carriers off the hook for 911 vertical location requirements

FCC Commissioners Brendan Carrr and Nathan Simington say the agency is letting wireless carriers off the hook over 911 vertical location obligations after agreements with AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon were announced Thursday.

Vertical location, or z-axis, data provided to dispatchers is meant to help emergency responders find wireless 911 callers more quickly when they’re located in multi-story buildings like apartments or offices.

“Through a series of decisions, the FCC required wireless carriers to identify the location of 911 callers within 3 vertical meters for 80% of all covered calls by April of this year. The full Commission determined that holding wireless carriers to this standard was technically feasible and would potentially save over 10,000 lives per year—including the lives of first responders going into harm’s way,” said Carr and Simington in a joint statement.

RELATED: AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon have 7-day deadline for 911 vertical location data

In February, the carriers had all asked for 18-month extensions, saying they couldn’t meet the April 3 deployment deadline in part due to testing delays from Covid-19 and technical issues beyond their control.  Separate consent decrees issued Thursday settled investigations by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, with AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon agreeing to start providing 911 vertical location nationwide within seven days and each pay a $100,000 fine.  These came after the missed April deployment and June 2, 2021 certification deadlines for providing dispatchable z-axis information in the top 25 cellular markets.

All three carriers agreed to compliance plans, which bump certification timelines to June 2, 2022.

Carr and Simington categorized the deals as bad for public safety and said their offices weren’t involved in the process.

“So we were surprised and disappointed to learn through a news release that FCC leadership decided to relieve wireless carriers of their certification requirement. The FCC is letting wireless carriers off the hook in exchange for $100,000 and a promise to provide whatever vertical location information they may have—however inaccurate it may be. This agreement, negotiated without any input from our offices, is a bad deal for public safety,” the commissioners stated.

RELATED: COVID-19 delays tests for 911 location technology

AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Fierce regarding Carr and Simington’s statement.

In announcing the settlements, FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the agency had been waiting too long on information that could save lives.

“These settlements accomplish what has evaded the agency for too long: they ensure that the FCC, public safety and wireless carriers work together to immediately start delivering this information to first responders without further delay,” Rosenworcel stated.

She added that it also means capabilities for more accurate 911 location data will improve across the U.S., rather than just the top 25 markets.  

Certain public safety groups expressed support for the action, including the the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, which said on Twitter that it sent a  signal carriers would not be let off the hook for failing to meet obligations to public safety. 

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

Regarding the agreements, wireless industry group CTIA in a statement said its member companies (which include AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon) are committed to ongoing testing for more accuracy.

“In emergencies, wireless is the primary way we connect to 9-1-1, and consumers and public safety officials benefit from highly accurate ground-level location information, thanks to years of work and investment by the wireless industry and commercial services like mapping, delivery and ride sharing. As solutions for vertical location continue to evolve, CTIA and our member companies are committed to our ongoing testing and evaluation of technologies that make wireless location estimates even more accurate,” CTIA stated.

In statements provided to Fierce Thursday, Verizon said the company is “diligently working with operating system developers to deliver a compliant solution” to better enable first responders to locate wireless 911 callers.

AT&T’s Joan Marsh pointed to ongoing work with the FCC, industry partners and public safety to add vertical location data that “meets or exceeds accuracy benchmarks."

Updated to include APCO comment.