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GPS Update: The FCC Sets the Table for GPS Location Technology in Wireless Phones







A recent development in Washington has made it more likely that GPS-enabled wireless phones will evolve into the dominant telematics market over the next several years.

On September 15, 1999, the FCC amended certain rules regarding wireless 911 emergency location technology, a move which many insiders believe will smooth the way for widespread adoption of GPS-enabled handheld telephones.

On a related note, on October 26, 1999, President Clinton signed the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 (PL No. 106-81), which, among other things, provides wireless providers and users of 911 emergency services with the same level of immunity previously provided to wireline providers and users. While the Act does not explicitly address GPS technology, it does remove one more obstacle to widespread compliance with the FCC's E-911 mandate, discussed below.

Of course, there are still many obstacles, including the lack of a coherent cost recovery mechanism for wireless emergency location services, a subject that will likely be considered by the FCC shortly. These obstacles will continue to the subject of considerable debate in Washington and among the wireless carriers and vendors.


On September 15, the FCC amended its rules regarding the technology by which wireless carriers must comply with the agency's Phase II E-911 wireless location mandate. This move is perceived as favorable to companies developing handset-based position location technology for use in the wireless handset market, which many perceive to be the largest market for GPS technologies. One market research firm recently forecast that by 2003, 38 million cell phones will have location-specific functionality.

(A) Background

By way of brief background, in 1996 the FCC enacted rules requiring that wireless carriers set up systems by October 1, 2001, by which wireless callers could be located to within 125 meters at least 67% of the time. The key purpose of this rule was to allow emergency dispatchers at public safety answering points (PSAPs) to locate callers from wireless phones. This standard, known as the E-911 Phase II standard, was intended to be technology neutral, but seem to favor network based solutions, as opposed to GPS-enabled handset solutions.

Since then, competition has become heated between companies providing network-based solutions, that typically involve costly changes to a carrier's network to find a caller, but do not involve changing out the handsets currently in use, and GPS solutions, which do not require changes to the network but do require new or retrofitted handsets. The traditional objections to GPS-enabled handsets are that the cost of retrofitting millions of handsets currently in use is prohibitively expensive, and that GPS accuracies are poor in urban canyons, in-building locations, etc., due primarily to poor signal availability and multipath interference. However, because the cost of GPS chipsets has dropped dramatically, and because wireless phones typically have a short life cycle, the first objection is now seen as less of a barrier than initially thought. Furthermore, GPS accuracies have continued to improve, even in urban canyon environments. Thus, GPS technologies are increasingly being considered as a viable alternative to network-based solutions.

(B) New FCC Rule

In its recent revision to the rules, the FCC acknowledged the viability of GPS-based solutions by enacting new phase-in requirements for both network-based solutions and GPS-enabled handset solutions. Wireless carriers are required to declare their technology choice by October 1, 2000. Those that adopt the handset approach must begin selling and activating ALI (Automatic Location Identification) capable handsets by March 1, 2001; insure that at least 50% of all handsets are ALI-capable by October 1, 2001; and insure that 95% of all handsets are ALI-capable by October 1, 2002. Carriers in areas where PSAP requests are received must comply with more stringent guidelines. Carriers that elect network-based solutions must deploy Phase II to 50% of callers within six months of a PSAP request, and to 100% of callers within 18 months.

Significantly, the accuracy requirements for GPS-enabled handset are stricter than those for network-based solutions. Under the new rule, the FCC tightened network based solution accuracies from 125 meters to 100 meters (at 67% of the time), and 300 meters (at 95% of the time.) GPS-enabled handsets must provide greater accuracies of 50 meters 67% of the time, and 150 meters 95% of the time. Many companies developing GPS-based solutions believe that the agency's recognition of the greater accuracies that can be achieved by GPS validates the GPS approach.


The recently enacted Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 amends the Communications Act of 1934 to direct the FCC and related agencies to designate 911 as the universal emergency telephone number within the United States.

Of particular interest are the provisions of the Act that give providers and users of emergency wireless service the same level of liability immunity as that previously afforded providers and users of wireline services. Up until now, wireless immunity was left to a patchwork of state regulation; some states provide immunity while many others did not. Leaving the matter to state regulation did not make particular sense, and was seen as a potential barrier to compliance with the FCC's E-911 mandate.

The new statute is a step in the right direction, but many obstacles to E-911 compliance still remain. For example, according to Communications Today, a recent progress report has found that only 7 percent of the country's PSAPs (there are more than 5,000 of them) have agreed with carriers as to what technology to use for relaying 911 information. On the subject of cost recovery, only about half of the states have adopted 911 cost recovery mechanisms, a prerequisite for compliance. This latter obstacle may be resolved at the federal level; the FCC will likely consider a "bill and keep" plan that will shift the financial burden to carriers (and ultimately to consumers) and eliminate the necessity of state E-911 cost recovery laws.


GPS: Charting New Terrain: Legal Issues Related To GPS-Based Navigation and Location Systems

The Global Positioning System and The August 21, 1999 "End of Week Rollover" Problem

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