Mike Rogers
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.). Credit: U.S. House Agriculture subcommittee on conservation, energy and forestry

WASHINGTON — A technical proposal by the four main U.S. cellular carriers to aid responders to emergency calls made from indoor locations would rely in part on Russian navigation satellites, a feature that has riled the chairman of a key congressional defense subcommittee.

In response to proposed Federal Communications Commission accuracy standards prompted by complaints from first responders who had trouble locating callers in distress indoors, the four carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — have offered up a technical solution that relies on a combination of wireless and satellite navigation technology. The latter part of the solution would leverage the U.S. GPS positioning, navigation and timing constellation and its Russian counterpart, Glonass.

In comments filed in June on the FCC’s proposed new standards, Verizon said including Glonass along with GPS receiver chips in cellular phones would provide access to more satellites, thereby improving the odds of “getting a location estimate for indoor calls” with increased accuracy.

Glonass was initially deployed in the 1980s but suffered from neglect following the end of the Cold War. Russian authorities have made replenishing and upgrading the constellation a priority in recent years and have made demonstrable progress toward that end.

But Glonass has also been a target of suspicious Republican lawmakers, who in late 2013 came out in opposition to the proposed placement of Glonass signal monitoring stations on U.S. territory. The concerns that fed that opposition have only heightened following Russia’s incursions into Ukraine.

In a Jan. 21 letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which oversees U.S. military space activities, said the wireless industry’s proposal could allow Russia to hold emergency calls “hostage” to gain leverage with the United States.

“Our response to Russia’s hybrid warfare, arms control cheating, illegal invasions of sovereign nations, and energy-based extortion must be broad-based isolation and counter-leverage,” he said.

In the letter, Rogers submitted several questions along with a request for national security and intelligence community assessments of integrating Glonass into the E-911 emergency response system.

“I am especially concerned that so soon after Russia’s illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory, and publicly announced decision to locate nuclear weapons in that territory, parts of the United States government may disregard the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” Rogers wrote.

Defenders of the carriers’ plan, known as the Roadmap, say concerns about Russians tampering with the U.S. emergency system are unfounded.

In a Dec. 23 comment submitted to the FCC, the CTIA-The Wireless Association, a cellphone carrier trade group, said, “[T]his bogeyman is nothing more than a desperate attempt to distract the stakeholders and the Commission and undermine the actual merits” of the plan.
Rogers is not the only party objecting to the carriers’ plan.

In a Dec. 15 filing, lawyers for TruePosition, a Pennsylvania company that develops terrestrial mobile location products, said the Roadmap proposal “raises a wide range of national security, reliability, liability and economic trade issues” and called the use of Russian satellites “no minor matter.”

“Does anyone really believe that the Russian government would accept responsibility for liability in the case of negligent operation of its GLONASS system that results in harm to U.S. citizens?” lawyers for True Position wrote.

FCC commissioners are expected to vote on the proposed E-911 rules Jan. 29.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.