This week's Senate Commerce Committee hearing on E-911 revealed a great deal about the mindset of Congress as significant changes in the system appear to be necessary so citizens can use emerging communications technologies to seek help during emergencies.

For the first hour of the hearing, discussions focused on well-chronicled issues surrounding 911: the limitations of a system that has changed remarkably little since its inception in 1968, reliability of location information associated with wireless E-911 calls, the need for voice-over-IP (VoIP) providers to access to key 911 network components and the importance of liability parity among 911 participants, regardless of the technology used.

In addition, the benefits of a next-generation 911 architecture based largely on IP technology were detailed, as well as the fact that such solutions are available today or will be in the near future. But it was only in the final minutes of the hearing that the proverbial elephant in the room -- how to pay for much-needed upgrades to the 911 system -- was addressed.

"We can have all the benefits [of next-generation 911 technology] and bring up the hopes of our folks, but if you can't pay for it, it's just a dream," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said.

Indeed, with most technical problems being addressed, funding likely is the biggest issue for the 911 system. Many current models are broken because they are far too dependent on fees attached to legacy telephony lines, which consumers are replacing with wireless and VoIP alternatives.

In addition, current models dictate that the availability of 911 depends largely on population density, which has resulted in public-safety answering points (PSAPs) in large population centers having money for multiple technology upgrades -- sometimes, with funds to spare -- while PSAPs in many rural areas of country struggle to maintain even basic 911 systems.

This funding disparity cannot be addressed at a state or local level, as it's illegal to divert revenues generated by a New York 911 tax to Montana. It's a national issue requiring a federal solution. With the exception of traditional wireline telephony, federal jurisdiction has been established for other key forms of communications -- wireless, VoIP and all computing-based services -- that already are the source of most 911 calls and certainly will dominate the sector in the future.

A national funding source for 911 also makes practical sense. Contributing to the funding disparity is the fact that a consumer may buy wireless or VoIP service at a store located in an urban area and get a phone number with the urban area's area code, but they may live in a remote area -- or even in a different state. But, under some funding models, any 911 fees collected on those phones are reverted to the state or area of initial purchase.

Furthermore, a federal funding method is justifiable because we live in a highly mobile society that views 911 as a national service. Almost as soon as we can use a phone, we are taught to dial 911 in an emergency to get help, and certain performance is expected, regardless of location at a given moment.

For example, a couple from Chicago that needs emergency assistance while traveling in Wyoming doesn't care about the intricacies of funding models, they just know to dial 911 and expect to get help. However, with the current system, it's possible the Wyoming PSAP may not be equipped to handle the couple's emergency call as efficiently as possible.

Finally, the future of 911 should not be just about voice communications. Text-based messaging and photos -- even video -- are integral parts of modern personal communication and should be leveraged in the next-generation 911 architecture. Pursuing this notion not only will help the caller in need and the first responder, but it could help resolve the funding issue.

One of the problems with the current 911 system is that funds generated from established voice technologies cannot address the needs of emerging communications that logically should be able to access 911. The current system of adding funds from new technologies -- whether it's VoIP today or wireless a decade ago -- will always be behind the curve of providing needed funding.

A new paradigm is needed. As Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said during this week's hearing, "we have to put on our thinking caps and spread it out as broadly as possible -- so [the tax] can be as small as possible."

Pursuing a 911 philosophy based on the notion of any device being able to connect from anywhere could help that happen. With such a policy directive, a federal tax on all communications devices and services would be logical, and the base would be so large that the levy could be minimal. Furthermore, such an approach would be technologically and geographically neutral, and tracking the sources of this revenue can help engineers of 911 anticipate the future technological needs of the emergency communications system.

E-mail me at donald.jackson@penton.com.