A Fresh Approach to Wireless E911
For years, the nation’s E911 system has been struggling with the challenge of precisely locating callers using wireless phones. This is an important challenge since the FCC reports that 70% of 911 calls are now made from mobile phones. In the meantime, the Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), or 911 centers, are still geared toward a 1960s-era telephone network where everything was connected with wires; E911 was first introduced in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968.
A private company called RapidSOS is now talking up a plan to deliver far greater accuracy in a timeframe akin to the mobile age as opposed to the lethargic pace of U.S. regulators.
Locating mobile devices the old fashioned way is not a precise science. Directional radio trackers don’t work well in urban areas, and techniques like time difference of arrival (TDOA) or assisted GPS (A-GPS) also fall short, particularly in locating devices indoors. The result is that the FCC has been mandating location capability for wireless callers since the 1990s and has had to delay or loosen the requirements countless times. One recent spec called for accuracy of 50 to 300 meters delivered within six minutes. Google Maps can generally get within 10 meters in seconds.
The FCC's current location requirements for wireless E911 were published in February 2015, and address accuracy for both horizontal and vertical location. The vertical requirements call for “uncompensated barometric data available to PSAPs from any handset that has the capability to deliver barometric sensor data” within three years.
The horizontal requirements state: Wireless service providers must provide either dispatchable location such as an address (which is described as “a long-term objective”), or x/y location coordinates within 50 meters:
- Within two years: for 40% of all wireless 911 calls
- Within three years: for 50% of all wireless 911 calls
- Within five years: for 70% of all wireless 911 calls
- Within six years: for 80% of all wireless 911 calls
Then FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in his statement announcing the requirements, “We all know how commercial location-based services like Uber can find their users reliably and consistently. If we can have an app that gets a car service to the right door, we certainly should be able to get 911 to the right door consistently and reliably.”
The Wall Street Journal is now reporting a startup called RapidSOS co-founded by 30-year old Michael Martin and Nick Horelik is ready to bring mobile E911 into the 21st century. Former FCC Chairman Wheeler has signed on as an official advisor to the startup, and former FCC chairmen Julius Genachowski and Dennis Patrick have signed on as investors.
RapidSOS's idea is to use the phone’s GPS along with triangulation among cell towers and Wi-Fi hot spots to get the accuracy down to a few meters; this is essentially the same technique used in Google Maps and other consumer mapping applications.
The original plan was to build a 911 app. They launched such an app called Haven in 2014, and took off on a cross-country tour talking to over 100 E911 specialists. What they learned was that such an app would be entirely impractical given the diversity of systems found among the nation’s 6,500 or so PSAPs.
So the company switched its focus and set out to develop a database that could be integrated with the E911 systems from companies like Motorola Solutions and Airbus DS Communications used in PSAPs today. Apparently convinced the proposal has legs, Motorola Solutions is putting $14 million into the venture.
This raises a new challenge, and RapidSOS has approached Apple and Android maker Alphabet to get them to modify their software so the more precise location information would be forwarded to the RapidSOS database automatically when a phone dials 911. The PSAP would then be able to access the location information from the RapidSOS database.
The business plan is also 21st century. The service would be offered for free to users and PSAPs, but RapidSOS would charge car manufacturers (e.g. GM’s OnStar) and alarm companies that would then be able to provide more precise location information in the event of an emergency.
A more accurate wireless E911 capability is a public service imperative, and six years is way too long to wait for it. Of course, most PSAPs do not have any ability receiving texts, a potentially vitally important capability for individuals in dangerous situations where they need to remain silent.
Hopefully the device manufactures can be cajoled (or potentially “coerced”) into getting on board with this, and the public can get access to this important capability in “mobile time” as opposed to “FCC time.”