A 911 vertical location solution success might be better solved by Google and Apple, not a $300,000 fine

In Featured News by Wireless Estimator

Z-Axis for FirstNet is different from a Z-Axis capability for use in wireless services provided to the general public in that the latter require a separate infrastructure to enable the solution.

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel’s announcement that the agency’s enforcement bureau had fined AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon $100,000 each for evading for the past six years the FCC’s requirement to provide Z-axis vertical locations of 911 callers painted a picture of carriers shrugging off agency deadlines, and in the process hindering first responders from saving over 10,000 lives annually, according to a 20-year-old study from Salt Lake City*. However, a closer look shows the carriers have presented the FCC with mitigating reasons why the delay is outside of their control and Google and Apple might be better equipped to save lives.

Earlier this month, FCC Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington said that the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau (EB) erred in taking AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile to the woodshed and fining them $100,000 each for not meeting their obligations by April 3 to provide 911 location certifications by using Z-axis data that would allow first responders to know where the caller was vertically in a building within +/- three meters from their mobile phone location.

Rather than requiring carriers to certify this year, they said the bureau kicked the can down the road another year in a settlement agreement that was negotiated without any input from their offices.

However, Commissioners and the EB were previously presented with valid reasons why the carriers were unable to meet the deadline and the bureau’s negotiated $100,000 fine – less than half the cost of a new cell site — the most that can be issued in a consent decree without obtaining a majority Commission vote, was a wrist slap.

It could have been avoided if the Commissioners addressed the carriers’ February requests for an 18-month waiver prior to the EB notifying them on April 3 to provide a response to a series of questions relating to their efforts to comply with sections 9.10(i)(2)(ii)(C) and (i)(2)(iii) of the Commission’s rules.

Although the consent decrees acknowledged the requests, it did not deny the extensions, as claimed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. It ignored them, but obviously took them into consideration when the EB agreed to push deadlines for full certification and deployment by one year to 2022 with benchmarks at regular intervals for testing and status reports.

“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,” FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said.

Consent decree sets no penalty for non-compliance

Nevertheless, AT&T’s consent decree, which is a duplicate of T-Mobile and Verizon’s agreement, is an exceedingly anemic order that sets deadlines and compliance requirements, but allows the carrier to be non-compliant if their assigned compliance officer documents the reasons and how the carrier will remedy non-compliance.

And if they’re in serious violation of the decree, the bureau’s Spectrum Enforcement Division can issued another letter of inquiry and subsequently the EB can fine them another $100,000, the other half of a cell site, or the billable hours of outside counsel for for FCC representation or a single macro tower siting dispute.

Rosenworcel’s press release explained that the FCC’s agreement said that by June 10, the carriers had committed to “deliver 911 vertical location information nationwide.”

The agency’s ambiguous headline had some media outlets inferring that the carriers had seven days to start providing compliant vertical information from the caller’s phone to 911 public safety answering points (PSAP), thereby allowing first responders to be able to respond quickly to emergency calls that now showed where the caller was in a multi-story building.

However, the agreement primarily said that AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile had to provide a status report of their ability to provide the data and deliver the Z-axis location information that is available to it to the same Automatic Location Information (ALI) databases to which it delivers horizontal (x, y) location information.

Last Thursday’s data submissions were likely weak and should not surprise the FCC since the agency is fully aware of the carriers’ lack of progress, based upon third-party roadblocks and the tough task mobile providers have in meeting the FCC’s requirements. In addition, they have been receiving progress updates since 2015.

Build it and they will come to use it?

According to T-Mobile, after they took a nationwide PSAP sampling, if all three carriers were in complete compliance and provided certification, only 3% of PSAPs would be able to receive and display Z-axis location data for 911 calls. The FCC said in its consent decree that the carrier’s reporting requirements “apply regardless of whether any individual PSAP requests Z-axis data.”

In February, all three carriers submitted a petition for waiver identifying the unique and unusual circumstances that would make full compliance by the April 3, 2021 deadline infeasible and asked for an 18-month extension.

Verizon said in its petition that their ability to provide Z-axis compliance hinged upon whether the device’s operating system owners, Apple and Google, can meet the 3-meter accuracy standard by the April deadline.

In addition, they emphasized that the CTIA Test Bed is shut down due to COVID-19 concerns and is not scheduled to re-start until September 2021 at the earliest, and it is the only legal vehicle capable of providing certification.

Verizon said that Apple’s iPhones make up more than half of the carrier’s base of smartphones and due to its policy of not supporting third-party Z-axis solutions, the OS vendors’ solutions are the only ones that would enable Verizon to attain compliance.

Verizon chose Google’s Emergency Location Service (ELS) as its primary solution for the Android platform. According to Google, currently, ELS works on over 99% of active Android devices (running Android OS version 4.1 /Jelly Bean and above). It is not a mobile application that the user has to download and install, but is instead built into Google Play Services as part of the Android operating system.

Throughout the FCC’s Z-axis rulemaking, Verizon cautioned the FCC that its dependence on the OS vendors and factors beyond its control put compliance with the rule deadlines at risk.

In 2019, Google said that they had completed essential work on the development of Z-axis location technologies, but believed that the FCC might be setting the 3-meter bar too high, and should present a “well-communicated, phased-in approach to get reliable and usable vertical location information into first responders’ hands as soon as possible, with a steady trajectory set to enhance the precision and utility of that data over time.”

They suggested that Commission should increase the requirement to 4-meters and have a phased-in approach.

Google also noted that ultimately, the transmission of floor-level information to first-responders should be required. Unfortunately, however, they said that there is no sufficiently reliable solution to pinpoint user location on a floor-by-floor basis. “The user’s height within a building is not a proxy for a floor number, because floors may differ in height within a building or from building to building,” Google cautioned, noting in some buildings the 13th floor is skipped.

In T-Mobile’s request for an 18-month extension, the carrier also cited the closure of the test bed and noted that in completed testing, no technology met the accuracy requirements in a commercially deployable configuration.

However, the carrier had a more positive outlook, stating that by the time testing could be re-commenced and completed, that commercially deployable solutions that meet the 3-meter accuracy standard might exist.

Even without COVID, compliance might have been ‘unachievable’

T-Mobile said that it joins Verizon and AT&T in their concern that the Commission’s April compliance benchmark “was unachievable, which may have been the case even without the global COVID pandemic.”

In addition, T-Mobile said it has no reasonable alternative —given that no technologies have been certified as meeting the accuracy benchmark in a commercially deployable configuration.

T-Mobile said it has already deployed the only commercially available vertical location solution and is already sending Z-axis information to PSAPs and, through those efforts, believes it has reached near, though not full, compliance.

Even for the limited PSAPs able to receive and display vertical location information, T-Mobile said that it is not apparent they are yet able to use this information to actually benefit 911 callers, T-Mobile claims.

“Moreover, it is not an adequate answer to assert that PSAPs will only upgrade to utilize Z-axis capability when 80% of calls in the test bed reach the ±3 meter standard. Such behavior would be irrational, both because T-Mobile is already delivering a majority of its vertical locations estimates with ±3 meter accuracy, and because even less accurate fixes will narrow the search range on calls.” T-Mobile said.

AT&T’s waiver request highlighted many persuasive points

AT&T, in its February 18-month waiver extension request, provided persuasive arguments for approval, but the FCC ignored the carrier, instead on April 2, announced that it would be conducting an inquiry to see if the three carriers would be able to start delivering vertical location information the following day, even though they then knew it would be impossible.

AT&T said that when the Commission adopted the Z-axis accuracy metrics in November 2019 in its Fifth Report and Order, the company had every reason to believe it would meet those requirements because it had been working for years on a parallel path with Z-axis solution providers.

But the pandemic, the test bed lockdown, and the actions of others prevented them from being compliant.

In asking for relief from the April 3 deadline, AT&T said that it would commit to ensuring that it met the April 2023 deadline six months or more earlier.

Almost as if AT&T anticipated that Rosenworcel would state last week that “Six years is too long to wait for 911 vertical location information that can save lives,” AT&T in February said, “Any suggestion that AT&T has squandered ‘years of lead time’ to comply with the Commission’s vertical location information requirements for wireless 911 calls is flatly incorrect.”

AT&T said that long before the Commission adopted the Fourth Report and Order that they had already been in discussions with vendors for solutions that provide vertical location information.

AT&T had intended to deploy a dispatchable location solution using the National Emergency Address Database (NEAD) to satisfy the Commission’s Z-axis requirements.

It was the first carrier to develop an interface to the NEAD to load access points into the database and began testing the interface in August 2017.

T-Mobile and Verizon joined in the effort and NEAD then had over 25 million access points, 90% of them provided by AT&T.

Nevertheless, carriers needed to satisfy the Commission’s requirement that there be a density of NEAD reference points distributed throughout the cellular market area (CMA) equivalent to 25% of the population and carriers needed the assistance of cable companies and other operators of wireless access points to meet that threshold.

CTIA and its member companies met with the Internet & Television Association (NCTA) numerous times to request that they upload reference points into the NEAD, but their efforts failed.

In addition, despite multiple requests by the nation’s carriers, neither Google nor Apple implemented the protocol necessary to report wireless access points for the NEAD-based dispatchable location solutions.

AT&T refutes that it was sitting on its hands

AT&T said it had spent $8 million trying to deploy the failed NEAD solution and took umbrage to the Commission’s contention that any difficulty carriers were having in meeting the April 2021 deadline was “largely a result of the providers’ own failure to take appropriate steps to prepare for complying with a forthcoming deadline.”

“Rather, it simply confirms what AT&T and CTIA have been telling the Commission for years: wireless providers cannot achieve compliance with the Commission’s vertical location information requirements on their own. Instead, they must rely to a large degree on the good faith efforts of others, including other Commission regulatees,” AT&T said in their waiver request.

AT&T said that since January 2015, it had been working with NextNav on several Z-axis solutions.

The company’s earliest proposal entailed a metropolitan beacon solution (MBS) which involved setting up a terrestrial beacon network overlaid on the cellular network to expand GPS satellites.

It wasn’t successful because the MBS required integration at the system on a chip, and a leading SoC manufacturer would not support it, and device manufacturers balked at championing it since AT&T was the only carrier investigating it.

AT&T then began discussions with NextNav on a revised, weather station-based network.

That solution dovetailed into AT&T providing a situational awareness solution for first responders on FirstNet by, among other things, installing NextNav’s weather stations on its towers in over 100 markets, including both the top 25 and top 50 CMAs. However, Z-axis for FirstNet is different from Z-axis capability for use in wireless services provided to the general public.

AT&T has also been testing beta versions of NextNav’s Z-axis software for 911 on limited handset models. However, several hurdles remain to AT&T being able to deploy this solution throughout the top 25 CMAs to all Z-axis capable devices in the CMA.

Also, one of the largest device manufacturers in the country had informed AT&T that it has no plans to integrate NextNav’s solution into its handsets.

NextNav announced in February that its vertical location service had been selected by FirstNet, built by AT&T, to provide highly accurate altitude capabilities for first responders, but the offering, which does not provide Z-axis data to PSAPs, is provided as an over the top application, which does not exist for 911,  an AT&T article stated

Commission dismisses CTIA’s request for an extension

The Commission had repeatedly dismissed requests made in 2020 to extend the April 2021 deadline as merely untimely requests for reconsideration of the Fifth Report and Order issued on November 25,  2019 with petitions for reconsideration due on February 17, 2020.

At that time, neither CTIA nor the carriers could have anticipated the impact that COVID-19 would have on the country and, specifically the lock down of test beds.

On November 2, 2020, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council opposed CTIA’s petition for reconsideration, stating CTIA’s test bed closure was not surprising due to the devastating impact of the virus, but it shouldn’t be used as the basis for extending the April 3 deadline.

Are Apple and Google stepping up to the plate?

All three carriers are expecting Apple and Google to provide the handset-based solution for them to become Z-axis compliant within 3 meters and are expected to perform tests largely consistent with the testing specification of the test bed when it’s available. CTIA did not immediately reply to a request as to when they anticipate opening up the test bed.

The question that begs to be answered is why isn’t the FCC requesting Apple and Google to provide a status report on their Z-axis progress?

They can and they should.

In 2009, the FCC required Apple to provide complete details why they rejected a Google voice application for iPhone solely based upon “recent press reports.”

–Craig Lekutis

*In 2014, the FCC said, “A study examining 73,706 emergency incidents during 2001 in the Salt Lake City area found that on average, a one-minute decrease in ambulance response times reduced the likelihood of 90-day mortality from 6 percent to 5 percent, i.e., a 17 percent reduction in the total number of deaths. This implies that, in the Salt Lake City area, a one-minute reduction in response times would have resulted in an annual saving of 746 lives. If we assume that this outcome is reasonably reflective of the country as a whole, we estimate that the location accuracy improvements we propose could save approximately 10,120 lives annually, for an annual benefit of $92 billion.”