FCC grants carriers waivers on E911 implementation

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Friday grudgingly extended the deadline for major national wireless carriers to roll out enhanced 911 emergency services, or E911.

The FCC had given the carriers until Oct. 1 to begin implementing the technology, but none did. The technology would permit emergency-services personnel to receive the physical location of a person calling 911 from a wireless phone, along with the person's phone number.

The FCC gave carriers two options for meeting its mandate when first issued in 1996. If a carrier chose to use a network-based technology, in which any ordinary handset could be triangulated from cell towers, then the carrier was required to have its system fully in place for use by municipal emergency call centers by October 1, 2001.

If a carrier chose instead to adopt a handset-based approach, like installing a GPS (global positioning system) in a phone, then the handset rollout could be phased in over the next four years, beginning October 1, 2001.

Network-only technology proved to be too inaccurate, leading all carriers to adopt plans for a handset system. But none had begun a rollout by October 1. Carriers claimed in waiver petitions that they couldn't procure equipment in time from their vendors that would let them meet the FCC accuracy standards.

The FCC accepted on Friday the modified schedules for rolling out E911 submitted by Nextel Communications Inc., Sprint PCS Group and Verizon Wireless Inc. Each carrier submitted a different plan with a different timetable for meeting the FCC's requirement. The FCC, however, is not budging from its original requirement that carriers have 95 percent of all their handsets compliant by the end of 2005, permitting both location and phone number to be transmitted to an emergency call center.

AT&T Wireless Services Inc. and Cingular Wireless LLC also received waivers, but only for their GSM (global system for mobile communications) networks. Waiver requests for the TDMA (time division multiple access) portion of their networks had not been received by the FCC in time, a spokesman said. The matter has been referred to the enforcement bureau of the FCC for potential fines or a consent decree, he said. VoiceStream Wireless Corp. received a waiver for its GSM network last year. Nextel, Sprint and Verizon received waivers for all their networks.

The commissioners used strong words to describe their irritation with the carriers.

"I am disappointed and unsatisfied with the progress we have made, thus far, on Phase II E911 rules," said FCC Chairman Michael Powell, in a written statement. "I know and respect that carriers have made concerted strides in this area, but those efforts must be re-doubled. It goes without saying that there is a new sense of urgency around using mobile phones as important safety devices."

Commissioner Michael Copps, who opposed the waivers for Nextel and Verizon, issued a harsh rebuke in conjunction with the decision.

"I fear... in the coming months and years we will see more waiver requests, more finger pointing, and unacceptably slow progress," he said. "I hope instead that carriers and manufacturers will not seek further extensions based on arguments of more vendor delay, technology failure, or the fact that the Commission today grants some carriers far more lenient compliance schedules than others."

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