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 9-1-1, 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 Inc., Motorola Mobility LLC 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 the 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 revenues 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.