This week, President George W. Bush signed into law legislation that addresses of a lot of housekeeping items that needed to be resolved so the 911 community could pursue next-generation solutions in earnest.

The potential benefits of IP-based public-safety answering points (PSAPs) has been well documented, giving those in need of emergency help the ability to communicate that need in a variety of methods other than traditional wireline and wireless telephony. While the impetus for the law was the need to address voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls, the law is worded broadly enough that 911 centers should be comfortable preparing to receive IP-based voice, video and data technologies without fearing legal concerns.

Legal issues have been a sticking point to date, as PSAPs have struggled to make decisions regarding emergency callers using VoIP technologies. In some states, the applicable 911 laws—written in a telephony-dominated era—do not contemplate the existence of communications technologies other than traditional wireline and wireless telephony.

As a result, PSAPs in these states that accept VoIP 911 calls technically are breaking the law. By itself, this is a troubling notion to a public-safety entity. But the bigger problem for PSAPs was the fact that it meant that PSAP did not enjoy the same liability protection on VoIP 911 calls that they did when providing emergency aid to a caller using traditional telephony technologies.

In theory, if something went wrong during a 911 call—obviously, a legitimate risk during emergency situations, when quick decisions must be made—from a VoIP subscriber, the PSAP and the VoIP provider were exposed to lawsuits that would not be an issue if the call came from a traditional telephony caller. This law closes that loophole and brings liability parity to VoIP 911 calls.

In addition, the law codifies many of the rules the FCC established regarding VoIP providers’ responsibility to provide 911 and added language ensuring their access to the 911 system.
What this law doesn’t provide is funding, but its language does lay important groundwork in this area. First, it clarifies that state and local entities can collect 911 fees from VoIP subscribers—again, something not contemplated in some state laws that address only traditional telephony communications. Second, the law includes language that has potentially significant implications regarding potential federal funding for 911.

By adding a clause regarding IP-based technologies, the funding provided through the Enhanced 911 Act of 2004 now can be used to pay for upgrades to next-generation 911 solutions, not just upgrades to wireless Phase II solutions that much of the nation already has in place.

To date, no money has been appropriated under the Enhanced 911 Act in the regular budget cycle ($43.5 million was earmarked from revenue generated by the 700 MHz auction), but this law could help change that.

Because the law previously allowed funding to be used only for Phase II upgrades, members of Congress representing areas that had paid for Phase II locally had little incentive to support such appropriations. By broadening the potential use of federal 911 funding to include next-generation upgrades—something that no PSAP has completed yet—members of Congress can feel comfortable that their constituents would benefit from such appropriations.

Of course, what the new law doesn’t change is the fiscal reality that a slow economy and the war in Iraq makes it difficult for Capitol Hill to find money for any new endeavor. It also doesn’t change the fact that the five-year authorization period of the Enhanced 911 Act expires at the end of next year.

In other words, while this week’s act represents an important step for the future of 911, it is only a first step. Next year, a new Congress needs to reauthorize the Enhanced 911, and—most importantly—provide needed funding, so PSAPs can make the next-generation 911 blueprints that are being developed a reality that save lives.

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