E911 Location Accuracy: Proposed New Rules Could Impose Significant Burdens on U.S. Regional and Rural Wireless Carriers

Six months after being blocked by a federal appeals court, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is once again poised to adopt rules imposing new E911 Phase II location accuracy requirements on wireless carriers.

On September 22, 2008, the FCC issued a Public Notice requesting comments on joint proposals for new E911 location accuracy rules submitted by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), Verizon Wireless and AT&T. These proposals, which have also been backed by Sprint Nextel, consist of separate requirements for carriers utilizing handset-based location solutions (i.e., CDMA and iDEN carriers) and those utilizing network-based location solutions (i.e., GSM carriers). Having apparently decided to put these proposals on a “fast track,” the FCC gave the public only until October 6, 2008, to file comments, and until 12:00 pm on October 14, 2008, to file replies.

Although these proposals are less stringent than the rules that were blocked by the court, they would still place new demands on wireless carriers that will likely require substantial investments in technology and infrastructure. As a result, these proposals could impose a substantial burden on regional and rural carriers that could significantly affect their operations and, in some cases, even their viability.

CARRIERS WITH HANDSET-BASED SOLUTIONS

For carriers utilizing handset-based location solutions, the rules proposed by APCO, NENA, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel would require that, within two years, 67 percent of Phase II calls must be accurate to within 50 meters in all counties served by a carrier, and 80 percent of Phase II calls must be accurate to within 150 meters in all counties. Within eight years, carriers would be required to improve these levels to 67 percent accuracy within 50 meters and 90 percent accuracy within 150 meters. These rules would also allow a carrier to exclude up to 15 percent of the counties it covers from the 150-meter accuracy requirement (but not the 50-meter accuracy requirement) based upon “heavy forestation” in those counties that limits the accuracy of handset-based technologies.

CARRIERS WITH NETWORK-BASED SOLUTIONS

For carriers utilizing network-based location solutions, the new rules proposed by APCO, NENA and AT&T would measure compliance only for those counties in which the carrier has deployed E911 Phase II in at least one cell site located within the county’s boundary. Specifically, when measured at the county level, 67 percent of all calls must be accurate within 100 meters, and 90 percent of all calls must be accurate within 300 meters. The proposed rules also establish a series of interim benchmarks that ultimately require carriers to meet the 67 percent/100-meter standard in 100 percent of their covered counties within five years and to meet the 90 percent/300-meter standard in 85 percent of their covered counties within eight years.

The proposed rules also encourage (but do not require) carriers with network-based solutions to begin incorporating handsetbased solutions or “hybrid” platforms on their systems by allowing carriers to “blend” their handset-based accuracy data with their network-based accuracy data in order to meet the overall network-based standards.

ISSUES FOR REGIONAL AND RURAL CARRIERS

The proposals now being considered by the FCC do not take into account the potential impact these proposals could have on regional and rural carriers that lack the resources and access to new technologies enjoyed by the nationwide carriers. These proposals also ignore or gloss over the challenges that many smaller carriers face, particularly those serving expansive rural areas with challenging terrain.

In addition, these proposals fail to address other issues of special importance to regional and rural carriers, such as the amount of capital needed to implement the necessary technologies and/or infrastructure (a particular concern in today’s tight capital and credit environment), the availability of and access to new technologies and equipment needed to meet the proposed accuracy requirements, and the impact of zoning and other restrictions on the deployment of towers, antennas and other necessary infrastructure.

Regional and rural carriers must therefore be prepared to take every step they can as soon as possible to ensure that, as the FCC moves forward on these proposed new E911 location accuracy rules, their unique needs and concerns are given full and fair consideration. Regional and rural carriers must also be prepared to press their concerns beyond the FCC if necessary, including to the courts and/or Congress. Otherwise, they could find themselves subject to a regulatory burden that could have them quite literally fighting for their lives.