Washington (AP) - The government moved Thursday to force the portable telephone industry to do a better job helping police and firefighters locate people who call 911 on cellular and Internet-based phones.Despite strong industry opposition, the Federal Communications Commission voted to move forward on a rule that would require cell phone companies to employ a much stricter geographic standard when testing the location accuracy of their handsets.
In addition, the commissioners tentatively concluded that the same accuracy standards applied to cell phones should also be applied to voice-over Internet protocol (VOIP) service providers, such as Vonage, as long as they can be used in more than one location.
People who call 911 from a wired telephone can be traced to specific address. That's not the case with cell phones. Locating callers can become a matter of life or death if the caller doesn't know his or her location, or is unable to speak for some reason.
Carriers are required to test their location systems and be able to pinpoint callers within certain distances. But they have been allowed to test their equipment over their entire national service areas, meaning good results in one region may skew the average.
"Multistate or statewide averaging can mask the reliability of 911 outside of large urban areas," said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. For example, meeting location accuracy standards on average in the entire state of New York by providing enhanced 911 capability in Manhattan does not help first responders in Buffalo.
The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International (APCO) has lobbied the agency to force carriers to measure location accuracy at the community level or "public safety answering point" level.
Last month, APCO released a report that showed if accuracy were measured at the community level, 71 percent of the tests made in seven sample areas would have received a failing grade.
Martin said earlier this month that he would recommend to the commission that it order companies to begin testing at the community level. The commission opted instead to seek comment before it makes any change.
The cell phone industry opposes the requirement. A letter filed with the FCC on behalf of Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA, Inc., Dobson Communications Corp. and the Rural Cellular Association questioned whether community-level testing was "technically feasible or even practical."
The FCC requires companies that use "network" technology — triangulating among cell towers to determine the caller's location — to come within 300 meters of the caller 95 percent of the time. Companies that use "handset" technology, meaning they use global positioning system satellites to locate callers, must come within 150 meters for 95 percent of calls.
Generally speaking, the network solution works better in urban areas where it may be difficult for a satellite signal to penetrate buildings, but not so well in rural areas because of a lack of towers. Phones that use satellite technology are excellent in rural areas where there is little overhead interference.
The agency will also consider whether it should require carriers to employ a "hybrid solution," a phone that would include both networking and satellite technology.