Urgent Matters

Should Congress create a FirstNet-like entity to tackle next-generation 911?


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Deploying next-generation 911 should be a national priority, but no entity currently is positioned properly to ensure that it happens nationwide. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says Congress should address the matter, but how?

Last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made a startling acknowledgment regarding the deployment of next-generation 911 (NG911): NG911 is a top priority, but his agency lacks the authority to do anything else significant to make it happen.

“I keep looking for things here and turning to [FCC staffers] and saying, ‘OK, what else can we do inside the authority of the FCC?’” Wheeler said before a meeting of the Task Force on Optimal PSAP Architecture (TFOPA), which would finalize its NG911 recommendations. “We have dealt with the question of resiliency, we've dealt with a question of location, issues such as text to 9-1-1 to try and take advantage of new capabilities.

“We have pretty much exhausted what we can do here at the commission, which is why every time I have been before Congress for the last year, I have always said we have to have leadership out of the Congress, and we have to have a new national plan for NG911—and that only Congress can make that happen.”

Few would argue with Wheeler’s premise. Some believe the FCC already has overstepped its authority in 911, a public-safety function traditionally handled at the state and local levels. Moreover, a major barrier to NG911 deployment is funding, and the FCC has no authority to address that issue.

Despite this, it was rather surprising to see a regulator essentially throw up his hands and say there is nothing else he can do—particularly in the case of Wheeler, who has been the target of Republican criticism that his agency has overreached its authority on several occasions, particularly in the area of net-neutrality regulations.

So, if the FCC is not going to spearhead the NG911 effort, who should?

State commissions traditionally have regulated 911, but a massive 2014 outage underscored the reality that states are ill-equipped to deal with IP technologies that inherently utilize assets—such as servers and routers—located outside their borders, which undermines their jurisdictional authority.

In addition, there are decades of precedent that state-based funding solutions do not result in a consistent emergency-calling product nationwide. For economic and political-prioritization reasons, some public-safety answering points (PSAPs) are on the cusp of NG911 with the latest and greatest technologies, while other 911 call centers struggle to maintain legacy systems that deliver only the most basic emergency-calling services.

Clearly, a new model is needed to regulate and fund NG911, especially during this transition period, when both legacy and next-generation 911 systems need to be integrated and operated. Exactly how this should work is a subject of considerable debate, but there is consensus on one item: the longer the transition from legacy systems to NG911, the more it will cost.

At this point, my guess is that it will cost a lot, because it is hard to imagine the existing patchwork approach to 911 resulting in anything other than a very lengthy transition. In fact, I don’t see any entity positioned to tackle all of the legal, political, funding, technological and operational issues associated with NG911.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Feb 5, 2016

Bigger is not always better is the age old adage and it is normally the case when the Federal Govt engages in domestic matters better left to the states. Especially when the states have decades of experience in the matter. The Feds cant afford another program, have no way of funding it, administering it, or the ability to add quality or value to 911 operations. They do have the ability to add bureaucracy, cost, unrelated regulation of a solution that will result funds wasted, and likely an approach with a one size fits all approach that will not be manageable or applicable. What is feasible in Florida may not be feasible in Alaska. What state, county, and local government need is a better way of funding the core needs of their 911 solutions. Sending the money to D.C. so a high percentage of it can go to newly created department and get a fraction of it back in return is no way to run a 911 system.

on Feb 5, 2016

What we truely need from Washington is strict laws governing the use of 911 surcharge monies and requirements that these funds be kept in a separate fund (other than the General Fund). Put teeth into the law that requires accountability and makes any attempt by any official to raid or 'sweep' these surcharge funds a criminal act with prescribed jail time. In Illinois we have some great people trying to change governance of 911 but they need help because the current state law permits 'raiding' of these funds.

on Feb 14, 2016

One scenario would be to increase funding for the FirstNet ESInet component. Allow States the ability to access this funding and build out their Statewide backbone (ESInet) with capability for both FirstNet and NG9-1-1, leaving the access connectivity and PSAP technology in the hands of the State/County authorities.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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