Expert Advice: Setting Standards for Indoor Position

April 1, 2013  - By 0 Comments
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Greg Turetsky

Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) Update

By Greg Turetsky

Many of us remember way back in 2001 when the FCC first announced E911 position reporting requirements for cell phones. That was a long time ago in many significant ways. Everyone had 2G phones and anxiously anticipated the arrival of 3G, and with it, data. Most people still had a landline at home, and used their mobile sparingly lest they overrun their monthly minutes. Roaming was very expensive and nearly impossible overseas. Very few phones had GPS, and people only turned it on when needed, as it significantly reduced battery life.

Now, in 2013, all of the technology has changed, but — not unexpectedly — the regulations have not. This is one of the reasons the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created CSRIC.

The Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council’s mission is to provide recommendations to the FCC to ensure, among other things, optimal security and reliability of communications systems, including telecommunications, media, and public safety. The current council, CSRIC III, was born on March 19, 2011, and ended on March 18, 2013. Working Group 3 (WG-3), the E911 Location Accuracy group, has looked into both outdoor and indoor location accuracy issues to help the FCC shape new guidelines. I don’t think any of us would argue that given the current patterns of cell phone usage, the ability to provide a location indoors to a public safety answering point (PSAP) is something that is now needed, has significant value to the public, and would seem to lie within our grasp technically.

Working Group 3 is a fairly large group of experts from a wide variety of backgrounds. The actual list of participants is publicly available; what’s more interesting is the groups that they represent. Three main constituencies constitute the Working Group: the public safety community, the wireless operators, and the technology vendors. Each group has a slightly different goal, but they all worked well together to produce clear, unbiased reports that represent all the different members’ views in a way that lends more credibility to the overall report.

On March 14, the FCC released two reports created by WG-3: the “Indoor Location Test Bed Report,” and “Leveraging LBS and Emerging Location Technologies for Indoor Wireless E911 Report.” I will not review either document here as they are available publicly, but I will summarize the highlights of the reports from my perspective as a member of the location community and a concerned citizen, and attempt to predict where the process might lead next.

Figure 1. Indoor accuracy in the dense urban environment.

Figure 1. Indoor accuracy in the dense urban environment.

Test Bed Report. In my mind, two key results emerged from the Test Bed Report. The first was very positive: the test bed showed that there are technologies capable of yielding positions indoors, and their performance can be compared analytically. This may seem like a bland statement, but it carries a significant amount of weight with both the public safety community and the FCC. It acknowledges that the technology has evolved sufficiently such that in a test bed setting, we can gather and compare, in an apples-to-apples way, the performance of diverse technologies in terms of yield and accuracy. Similar to the LightSquared reports, this report focuses on ensuring that the data itself is valid. The interpretation of the data is far too politically and economically charged to be agreed on by all parties involved. It is a great accomplishment to concur on a methodology by which testing should be done, and to produce a set of results that can be given to the FCC with the entire council’s approval.

The second highlight from my perspective was less positive. The test bed originally had seven participants, but in the end only three completed the process. This indicates that there are even more candidate technologies for solving the indoor E911 problem — but for a variety of reasons, they were not ready for CSRIC testing at this juncture. Although having three choices is good, seven (or even more) would be better for the FCC to feel confident in its ability to create a new mandate with sufficient flexibility on implementation. There are clearly many ways to skin this cat technically, but we have to ensure that the test bed methodology allows as many as possible viable alternatives to be compared. There is clearly a gap between those technologies that are commercially available and those that can be used for E911.

Leveraging LBS. The Leveraging LBS Technology report also reached some interesting conclusions. The concept of leveraging LBS was actually how I became involved in the CSRIC. The underlying question that the FCC asked me to explore was “Why can a smartphone user can get a dot on a map indoors (usually with an uncertainty circle, no less), but no location information shows up on the PSAP screen if he makes an E911 call?”

As we dug into this problem, it became clear that this was less of a technology problem and more of a business/policy one. Quite a few large companies make money by providing that indoor location for various applications, but there isn’t any real money in E911 — although there are lots of liabilities. Also, many of these solutions are proprietary either to the phone, the operating system, or the application, while an E911 solution would need to be standardized across all of those as well as different carriers.

Figure 2. Indoor accuracy in the urban environment.

Figure 2. Indoor accuracy in the urban environment.

Conclusion. The FCC has received two reports with similar conclusions: We have come a long way since 2001, but we might not be there — the indoor E911 promised land —just yet.

There is still more to come, however. Therefore, many participants and observers hope the work of the current CSRIC will lay the foundation for a rational conversation about indoor E911 right now, and still be around to allow for future improvements. We have recommended that the test bed be maintained so future results can be compared with current ones. At issue is the funding source for the test bed. The FCC has announced the coming of a CSRIC IV, but has not released any further details. It is certainly the hope of WG-3 that the work performed to date to establish and validate the test bed will be available for use by future technologies as they mature.

Locating emergency callers indoors is a critical capability that we as society must address — not for the callers’ convenience, but for their safety and or public safety generally. The problem has technical, commercial, regulatory, financial, legal, and public safety facets to it, making it a very complex issue.

I should also note, that although E911 is a U.S. regulation, the problem of indoor location is under scrutiny in nations all over the world. I earnestly hope that all sides can continue working together to find a solution that can be implemented for the benefit of everyone.


Greg Turetzky is senior director, CTO Office, for CSR. He served on the CSRIC Working Group 3 LBS Subgroup. He will participate in a April 16 GPS World Webinar on this topic. Registration is free.

GPS World staff

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