By Allan Holmes
Joan Lantz was having trouble breathing. At 9:28 p.m. on Feb. 7, 2012, the 71-year-old picked up her cellphone and dialed 911 from her small apartment in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
“I can’t breathe,” Lantz said in a labored voice to the 911 dispatcher.
“What’s the address?” the dispatcher asked.
There’s a pause. Lantz says again, “I can’t breathe.”
“Hold on one second. I’m trying to find out where you are, OK?” the dispatcher said.
It would take more than 13 minutes for dispatchers to determine the location where Lantz was calling from. And even then, it was just an approximate area: somewhere in the sprawling Patriot’s Crossing Apartments complex in northeast Rock Hill.
An additional 44 minutes would pass before police officers, who went from apartment to apartment trying to find Lantz, kicked down the door of unit 101. There, they found Lantz lying on her couch, dead from respiratory failure. She was still clutching her cellphone.
Had she been located faster, Lantz’s death might have been prevented. Addresses pop up quickly on a dispatcher’s screen when a call comes from a landline. But dispatchers can’t always locate callers when the calls come from cellphones—especially when made from indoors.
More than 10,000 people who would otherwise be saved die every year when calling 911 from a cellphone because emergency dispatchers can’t get a quick and accurate location on them, the Federal Communications Commission calculated, when it proposed new 911 location rules last year for wireless phones.
The problem isn’t the dispatchers, police, or firefighters who respond to the emergency calls. The failure is that the technologies used by wireless carriers—like industry giants AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.—fail repeatedly to locate indoor callers.
The real tragedy, say emergency workers and cellular engineers, is that this doesn’t have to be: Technical solutions exist that can locate people calling on cellphones within seconds. But tough rules proposed by the FCC in February 2014 aimed at requiring more accurate indoor locations of callers to 911 were weakened through a nearly year-long lobbying campaign by wireless carriers.
Wireless carriers said the new rules relied too heavily on expensive proprietary technology that was untested and that accuracy claims were overhyped. They argued that commercially available technology already widely deployed, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices found in almost every business and most homes, promised to provide better location accuracy because it would give a specific street address with an apartment, floor and room number.
But more than a dozen associations representing firefighters, police, emergency medical technicians, the elderly, the deaf, and technology companies said the commercial technology wasn’t developed for the demands of a 911 system and would fail during major disasters when electricity was lost. The proposal, many of the groups said, allowed the carriers to shift the cost and responsibility of locating 911 callers from the carriers to the public, making it impossible for the FCC to enforce.
But more importantly, many of the groups said the carriers ignored them when developing their alternate rules, relying instead on associations the carriers had lavished with hundreds of thousands of dollars of support.
“[This] is a perfect example of how big money and big corporations can make it appear there’s been a democratic and open process, but in fact they’ve corrupted the science and bought off the very organizations that are supposed to be a watchdog in protecting the public,” said a former senior FCC official who asked to not be identified in order to speak more candidly. “And in this case, the result means more people will die.”
An ‘Effing Boondoggle’
In February 2014, just three months into his new job as FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler proposed explicit rules requiring carriers to deliver accurate indoor locations for people calling 911 from their cellphones. The issue had been a big concern for Wheeler going back to the 1990s, when he was head of CTIA-The Wireless Association, which typically fights for looser regulations. But Wheeler had cast the tie-breaking vote on the association’s board to support wireless-location rules.
Wheeler told a workshop the FCC convened on the issue in November 2013 that he had been convinced wireless-location rules were needed after a meeting he had during his CTIA days with then-FCC Chairman Reed Hundt. The chairman had played a tape for Wheeler of a 911 wireless call from a frantic woman in Texas whose car was stuck on a railroad track. She couldn’t give the dispatcher her location, and while she was unharmed, Wheeler listened to the sound of her car being demolished by an oncoming train.
Wheeler’s proposal would have required carriers to use new technologies to meet the required accuracy. Some were already available, while others had been tested but not included in handsets and would have added tens of millions of dollars a year to carriers’ costs to provide. The technology would allow emergency workers to locate people calling from indoors and from deep within cities where tall buildings can block GPS signals.
The rules also included requirements to identify for the first time what floor a person was calling from and to report to dispatchers and the FCC that they were locating a large portion of indoor callers. The accuracy for pinpointing a caller was reduced to 50 meters from the previous requirement of up to 300 meters.
But the agency didn’t pass those rules. Instead, this past January, the commission approved a watered-down version of Wheeler’s proposed regulations. Deadlines for when carriers have to meet accuracy standards for locating wireless callers were extended and requirements specifically designating indoor-location accuracy were removed. Cheaper, untested technologies that won’t require wireless carriers to spend more money were included instead.
“Where we ended up was, I guess, admittedly, not as ambitious as what we had proposed,” said an FCC official who worked on the rules and asked not to be identified so to speak candidly about the rule-making process. “But it was a pretty significant step forward and something that we were—happy with, maybe? Maybe happy with, but not satisfied?”
The process “was the biggest effing boondoggle ever,” said a participant in the rule-making process. The person asked for anonymity, fearing a backlash from carriers. “It represents everything that is wrong with Washington.”
Large and well-financed telecommunications companies spent millions lobbying the FCC and relied on cozy relationships cultivated over years with the two key groups representing emergency dispatchers, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), that would be needed to support any new location rules.
In the end, they managed to convince the government to sacrifice safety to protect their bottom lines, say many public-safety advocates. But wireless companies say their approach is better because it relies on commercially available, ubiquitous location technology that many popular applications use to locate callers.
Nearly two dozen individuals, including lobbyists, wireless technology executives, cellular engineers, 911 operators, and industry consultants, declined the Center for Public Integrity’s requests for interviews or asked to speak anonymously for this story. They said their jobs or businesses relied heavily on the carriers—in particular AT&T and Verizon, which, when combined, account for two-thirds of all cellphone customers nationwide.
AT&T declined to comment for this article, referring questions to CTIA, which includes as members AT&T and other carriers as well as suppliers. CTIA offered a 935-word statement, which did not address a dozen questions the Center sent on specific points that appear throughout this article.
“The FCC’s rules require wireless carriers to meet quantifiable benchmarks on aggressive timelines,” Scott Bergmann, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, wrote in the emailed statement. The FCC’s approach “will help save lives.”
Verizon and T-Mobile US Inc. also declined requests for interviews to answer specific questions about how the rules were negotiated. For other responses, the Center relied on excerpts from comments the companies filed with the FCC.
Officials from APCO, which has received considerable support from carriers, didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview. In a blog posted in January, APCO said it was “proud” to have collaborated with the wireless carriers to develop an alternate set of rules that it believed would provide a better solution by delivering a specific address to 911 dispatchers.
GPS Not the Best
For years, the FCC has required wireless carriers to provide GPS location technology in their handsets, with accuracies up to 300 meters of a 911 caller. But dispatchers don’t always get a location when a call comes in. A 2012 study of 911 calls in five California cities showed an accurate location was being delivered between 20 percent and 49 percent of the time. Carriers disputed the findings, saying dispatchers weren’t following proper computer procedures to obtain callers’ locations.
Most recent cellphones are equipped with global positioning system hardware, which can locate callers via satellites. But while GPS works well when locating a caller standing in an open field, when the call comes from inside homes, apartments, stores, hotels, college dorms, or in downtowns where tall buildings block signals, it performs poorly.
With an estimated 58 percent of all wireless calls coming from indoors, the FCC realized a large portion of emergency calls were likely not to deliver a location at all.
Data crunched by the FCC showed 10,120 lives would be saved each year, with an economic benefit of $92 billion annually, if police, firefighters, and ambulances could reach a caller just one minute faster.
Tests performed in 2012 by an FCC-sponsored group and later by independent consultants had shown new wireless-location technologies frequently provided better indoor accuracy than GPS-based technologies. The FCC now had “confidence that further advances in technology should enable us to locate callers indoors with the same degree of accuracy as outdoors,” Wheeler said in February 2014, before the agency’s commissioners approved opening the rules for public comment. The agency’s two Republican commissioners also voted in favor of releasing the proposed rules, but objected to what they considered tight timelines.
At the heart of the proposed rules were two requirements:
• Within two years, wireless carriers would have to provide the location of a 911 call from indoors to within 50 meters 67 percent of the time. Within five years, carriers would have to deliver that level of accuracy for 80 percent of all indoor calls.
• Within three years, carriers would be required to provide the vertical location, such as a floor in a building, of a wireless caller to within three meters some 67 percent of the time and 80 percent of the time within five years.
The rules were considered aggressive but attainable by police, firefighters, medical responders, many technologists, and cellular engineers.
The carriers disagreed. AT&T filed comments with the FCC in May 2014, calling the rules’ accuracy requirements “not yet technically or commercially feasible” and the “proposed timeframes… wholly unrealistic.” Verizon also said the deadlines were not attainable and that more time was needed to test if “a particular location solution will meet any new accuracy standards the commission adopts.” T-Mobile said the FCC’s reliance on new location technologies for its proposed rules had “proven economically infeasible to deploy and maintain in comparison to other, better performing technology alternatives,” and suggested Wi-Fi technology as an alternative. Sprint Corp. made the same arguments.
Getting Their Way
Eleven months later, the FCC passed very different rules, regulations that were based largely on a plan called the Roadmap, which was written by the four big wireless carriers—AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile—in conjunction with APCO and its smaller sister, NENA, which together represent about 30 percent of the nearly 100,000 emergency dispatchers nationwide.
The rules no longer required the carriers to show they were delivering locations for indoor calls. All 911 calls, coming from outdoors and indoors, would be measured together. The percentages of calls that would have to deliver an accurate location were reduced, from 67 percent in the first two years to 40 percent. The deadline for 80 percent of calls delivering an accurate indoor location was extended from five years to six.
Removed from the rules was a requirement to deliver a location for callers in multi-story buildings. In its place is a requirement that within three years carriers come up with an independently verified way to measure vertical location and deploy by 2023 the technology to just the top 50 wireless markets nationwide. The FCC had proposed requiring carriers to provide vertical locations nationwide within three years for 67 percent of indoor calls.
The carriers also got their way in pushing for a so-called Nationwide Emergency Address Database, which would provide a dispatchable address that includes street address, apartment number, suite, floor and other location information for just 25 percent of the population. The database, which is required to be built by 2021, would be populated with the addresses of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices operated by companies, retail establishments, and individual homeowners that smartphones access and can be used to broadcast their locations.
The carriers, CTIA, technology companies, and APCO and NENA touted the new rules as a collaboration between industry and the dispatcher associations, a partnership, they frequently said, that the FCC had called for in its proposed rules, asking for “industry and public-safety stakeholders to propose consensus-based, voluntary commitments.”
“The FCC’s invitation was based on a long and successful history of collaborations between wireless carriers and the public-safety community to improve 911, which was repeatedly spearheaded by APCO and NENA,” including the rules passed in 2013 for texting 911, which “has already enabled life-saving communications,” CTIA’s Bergmann said in an email.
But in the end, the carriers asked only the dispatcher associations to negotiate, other groups argued. Left out were a range of associations, including police, sheriffs, firefighters, emergency medical responders, the elderly, the deaf, abused women, utility regulators, and others who strongly supported the initial rules, members from these groups said.
The two groups the carriers did negotiate with—APCO and NENA—have received large financial donations from the carriers.
AARP, whose members are among the most likely demographic to call 911, described the negotiations as a “closed, opaque process” and said the “agreement would have been very different… if it had been an open and transparent process.”
The wireless companies “have far too much influence in Washington, and when you add to that APCO and NENA, it is very hard” to overcome, Kevin O’Connor, head of governmental affairs for the International Association of Fire Fighters, which supported Wheeler’s original rules, said in an interview. “The people going into fires risking their lives should be included in any negotiations and should carry a lot of weight. But unfortunately, in this case, that didn’t happen.”
In January, the FCC commissioners—three Democrats and two Republicans—voted 5-0 to approve the altered rules, but the unanimity belied the commissioners’ division. Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn voted to “concur” with the rules, a position that means she didn’t agree with the changes but wasn’t going to try to stop them. “I would have preferred the rules that we originally proposed would be the ones we vote on today,” she flatly said before the vote. Clyburn didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, also a Democrat, opposed Wheeler’s proposed rules. A frequent speaker and attendee at APCO events, Rosenworcel was the key player helping guide the creation of less-stringent rules, sources inside the FCC said. Rosenworcel said the new requirements took “a lot of work and wrangling” and thanked APCO and NENA for their “insights and assistance.” Rosenworcel did not respond to a request for an interview.
Wheeler realized he didn’t have the votes to pass his original proposal without Rosenworcel, who would have likely joined the two Republican commissioners in voting against Wheeler’s rules, FCC sources said.
The two Republican commissioners preferred the altered rules. Ajit Pai said he appreciated the rule changes and that he “would like to thank Commissioner Rosenworcel in particular for helping steer the item down a better path,” a rare show of bipartisan camaraderie on the commission.
Wireless Funds Flow to Safety Groups
A few weeks after the FCC released the proposed tougher rules, wireless carriers began meeting with APCO and NENA. The groups had worked together months before to form rules for texting 911, and the carriers needed the groups’ support to help roll back what they viewed as Wheeler’s heavy-handed regulations.
“You don’t have to be an Einstein to figure out what their reaction was,” Brian Fontes, NENA’s CEO, said of the carriers in an interview at his office. “They had to be apoplectic over the proposals that the commission was presenting.”
The carriers and the associations, aligning with their state chapters and groups supported by the wireless carriers, collectively spent millions of dollars to file dozens of comments in support of their alternate rules and convinced other large groups and corporations to do the same. The four carriers, CTIA, APCO, and NENA—with support from large technology companies such as Cisco Systems, Motorola Mobility, and other, smaller groups—filed nearly twice as many comments and met with FCC staff more than a dozen times more than location-technology companies and their supporters did during the 12 months the commission wrote the rules, according to FCC records. The record they built overwhelmed the smaller and less-financed groups. And it was a record the FCC is required by law to consider.
The wireless carriers are among the best in Washington when it comes to building a strong case for their views on wireless policies because they can call on a network of organizations to file comments that support the carriers’ positions, the FCC official said. As a legal matter, the FCC has to consider all the submissions or risk future lawsuits, the official said.
TruePosition Inc., a location-technology company that supported the stricter rules, formed a lobbying group called FindMe911. The group published a list of comments from dispatchers nationwide complaining about poor location technology and created other promotional campaigns. But the effort failed against the wireless carriers’ combined spending, said one of the leaders of the campaign.
In reaching out to the public-safety stakeholders, the carriers kept the field to APCO and NENA, two associations they had long ago cultivated close relationships with by being among the top sponsors of the associations’ annual conferences. The carriers also have been among the primary sponsors of the groups’ awards banquets, workshops, and seminars held on specific 911 policies.
The financial ties run deep.
APCO offers companies corporate partnerships, which includes benefits based on the amount of money a company gives, such as access to APCO board members and executive staff. AT&T is a “platinum corporate partner,” the top partnership level. It requires giving the association $100,000 or more, according to APCO’s website. Verizon is a silver partner, a level bestowed to companies that donate between $40,000 and $70,000, and T-Mobile is a bronze partner, which requires a gift between $10,000 and $40,000. Sprint is not a corporate partner.
Motorola also gave $100,000 or more, and TeleCommunication Systems Inc., which develops wireless-location-based services, and Intrado Inc., which provides emergency communications systems to telecom companies, both donated between $70,000 and $100,000. TeleCommunication Systems and Intrado rely heavily on business from the largest wireless carriers, according to sources knowledgeable about the contracts who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution from the carriers.
Motorola, TeleCommunication Systems and Intrado submitted comments in December with the FCC supporting the wireless carriers’ rules. Together, these six companies represent 40 percent of APCO’s corporate partners. None of APCO’s 15 corporate partners includes a company or group that supported the stricter 911 location rules.
APCO collected about $3.4 million from its conferences in 2013, which includes sponsorships from wireless carriers and the emergency wireless infrastructure companies that work closely with the telecoms, according to its financial statement filed with the Internal Revenue Service. That was 34 percent of its total revenue of $9.9 million and is typically the largest single source of income for the association.
APCO’s sister association, NENA, also holds conferences and seminars that are sponsored by the wireless companies and infrastructure companies that depend on their business. But NENA CEO Fontes denied sponsorships and other giving influence the association’s policy positions.
“I think it’s a very big problem that APCO has these sponsorships; it’s a very big problem,” said Hundt, FCC chairman during President Bill Clinton’s administration. The carriers’ sponsorships of APCO and NENA conferences and events “just create a serious conflict of interest. It’s unavoidable.”
Fontes, saying he wanted to be transparent, provided the Center for Public Integrity a printed copy of a spreadsheet showing AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and CTIA gave NENA a total of almost $595,000 from 2011 to 2014. The amount is about 4 percent of NENA’s total revenue during that time.
“Some perceive that we capitulated because these carriers give a vast amount of money to NENA. Well, it’s not so,” said Fontes, who previously was head of policy at CTIA. The amount they give “is not going to make or break this organization.”
CTIA, to which AT&T referred the Center to answer questions about financial ties with APCO, did not address an emailed question about whether wireless companies used sponsorships and other donations to influence dispatcher associations. The association wrote that the FCC encouraged industry and other stakeholders to work together.
Motorola declined to comment. Intrado said in a one-sentence statement about its support of APCO and NENA that it “is a long-standing supporter” of the groups and “continues to partner with them to further our common goals.” TeleCommunication Systems did not reply to emails requesting comment. APCO Executive Director Derek Poarch and recently elected APCO President Brent Lee didn’t return emails requesting an interview.
Money also buys access to conference panels and the chance to give presentations at forums where the first kernels of rules may be formulated, with the ideas eventually making their way to the FCC for consideration. Close relationships between association leaders and corporate executives are formed over drinks at the bar and parties at corporate offices.
In March, APCO held its Emerging Technology Forum in Dallas, where AT&T’s corporate headquarters are located. The forum, which the association periodically holds, was sponsored by TeleCommunication Systems, Intrado, and T-Mobile, among other companies. Speakers included David Simpson, head of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, which was in charge of writing the wireless 911 location rules.
Most of one afternoon session included “education” on location technology and accuracy given by Verizon, Intrado, TeleCommunication Systems, and Qualcomm, which develops wireless communications equipment. All four companies urged the FCC to adopt the carriers’ wireless 911 location rules. Not one company or group who supported the tougher proposed rules was part of the program.
APCO also held an evening reception at AT&T’s headquarters, where the company provided attendees, APCO executives and policymakers “opportunities to meet and greet with AT&T executives,” according to the forum’s program. AT&T also advertised that “technologists from AT&T’s Foundry in Plano will be offering demos of the latest innovations in communications.”
James Thurber, a professor at American University who has studied lobbying for more than 30 years, said the practices are routine and almost universally accepted, but he says it no less undermines the public interest.
“This is one of the lobbying tools to influence public policy,” Thurber said. “The sponsors help set the parameters of the policymakers and drive the policy in the direction they like.… These companies aren’t putting $100,000 out there unless they see some return they will get. This isn’t philanthropy.”
APCO is especially amenable to wireless carriers’ demands, typically aligning itself with the companies’ positions on 911 issues, particularly with AT&T, say executives and technologists with 911 groups, location-technology companies, and former FCC staffers.
Thera Bradshaw, who sat on the APCO board and served as its president for a year, said she never felt pressure to give in to demands from wireless carriers, but when it came to including carriers’ executives on panels and presenting their points of views at “conferences and events, I’ve seen that happen.”
APCO officials didn’t respond to emails requesting comment.
One of the elements in the wireless carriers’ proposal that made it into the FCC’s final rules and irritates critics was the reliance on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology, which smartphones connect to for Internet access and provide location information for popular applications. Each router and device has an identifier that can be tied to the physical address where the devices are located, presumably a floor and room number in a multistory building.
The carriers argued the ubiquitous presence of the routers and devices — in almost every business, school, and most homes—could be used to locate 911 callers indoors. Smartphones constantly look for Wi-Fi routers, which typically have a range of about 50 to 150 feet, depending on obstructions such as walls and appliances. If a person calls 911, the smartphone may determine which Wi-Fi router is closest by its signal strength, even without being connected to the Wi-Fi, and relay the router’s address to the emergency dispatch center, technologists said. If the physical address of the router is known, a smartphone could deliver the location of the router. Emergency responders would be given not only a street address, but a floor, suite, or room number, a location that everyone wants, carriers argued to the FCC.
But the physical address of the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices would need to be stored in a national database that dispatchers could access. The carriers offered in its Roadmap to build a National Emergency Address Database to store the addresses, which would be provided to dispatchers during a 911 call. The agency agreed and required carriers to create the database by 2021.
Critics of the solution say the technology has its flaws.
Wi-Fi can fail during tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes when power blackouts occur, while calls to 911 increase.
Also, critics argue that carriers support the Wi-Fi solution simply because it allows them to avoid the expense of the location technologies that attach to cell towers or on top of buildings, such as TruePosition’s and NextNav’s technologies. NextNav’s product can locate callers on a specific floor and room in a building by sending a beacon out from a transmitter that uses a barometric pressure sensor in smartphones to determine how high a caller is from ground level. The technology would cost about $25 million a year for each carrier, company officials said. In comments to the FCC, wireless carriers said the technologies were too costly, and “commercially available solutions” such as Wi-Fi could “help… carriers manage costs,” according to a CTIA filing.
For AT&T, $25 million represents 0.4 percent of its 2014 net income, and for Verizon, about 0.3 percent.
The carriers’ support of Wi-Fi as a location technology is relatively new. In a filing with the FCC four years ago, T-Mobile said using Wi-Fi to locate callers “has considerable shortcomings,” including reliability, limited accuracy, and that only callers who owned smartphones would have the ability to access the routers. T-Mobile urged the FCC not to consider Wi-Fi as a solution for locating 911 callers.
In response to recent inquiries, T-Mobile referred the Center to a comment it filed in December, just weeks before the FCC voted on the new rules, in which the carrier wrote that recent advancements, “including the widespread use of Wi-Fi positioning technologies in the commercial sector,” have “led carriers and others to reconsider this technology.”
Most important, critics said, a Wi-Fi solution would leave a large portion of low-income households and the elderly with no way of being located when calling 911. About 30 percent of all U.S. households do not have a broadband Internet connection in their home, meaning they have no Wi-Fi router that’s needed to connect wirelessly to the Internet, according to the Pew Research Center. Most of the households without an Internet connection are low-income and the elderly. Only 52 percent of households that earn less than $30,000 a year have a connection, and only 47 percent of people older than 65 do. Poor communities as a whole also will have fewer Wi-Fi hotspots, leaving large areas in these neighborhoods with no access, critics said.
In addition, most of the poor and elderly don’t have smartphones, which are needed to read nearby Wi-Fi routers and their addresses. About 50 percent of households earning $30,000 and less don’t have a smartphone, and 73 percent of Americans older than 65 years old don’t own one, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey.
Won’t Save as Many Lives
In the end, it will be the 911 dispatchers who determine how well the new rules work. And many aren’t convinced they will, given how the rules were written.
Stephen Souder, the director of the Department of Public Safety Communications for Fairfax County, Virginia, and a widely respected expert in the field, said the politics that led to the latest rules were “frustrating.”
But Souder isn’t naïve to how Washington works. He’s seen it before—many times. The FCC has been working on wireless-location rules for 911 since 1994, when Souder was part of the agency’s first effort to write requirements for locating wireless callers. Those regulations, and efforts to write others in later years, were rolled back as well. As a result, some people still can’t be found when they call 911, he said, “and in fact it’s gotten worse.”
Now Souder, sitting in his office that overlooks the massive control room where dispatchers take 911 calls, seems resigned to the fact that the latest rules will likely fall short, too, and another six years or more will be lost to improving the system to the point that all callers can be located.
And people will continue to die.
“I’d like to say that these rules will save lives. I don’t know,” Souder said. “But I can absolutely say that [they] won’t save as many lives as [they] would have if [there were] tighter timelines and accuracy requirements that the first rules had.”
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of their coverage of the telecommunications industry or follow them on Twitter.