Four years ago, Congress authorized up to $1.25 billion over a five-year period to fund upgrades to public safety answering points across the country to bring them into compliance with the FCC’s Phase 2 requirements. So far, only $43.5 million of that money—3.5%—has been appropriated. But the legislation passed by the Senate last week (see story)—which is expected to easily pass through the House and be signed into law by President Bush—could be the tool that’s been needed to open the spigot.

The bill would allow federal grant money to be used for purposes other than Phase 2 upgrades, something the ENHANCE 911 Act doesn’t allow and which this new bill would change. Specifically, its language refers to “the migration to an IP-enabled emergency network,” an important distinction, said Patrick Halley, governmental affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association.

“The fact that the money can be used for broader purposes, we hope, will help us,” he said. “Maybe we can … get people to open up their minds and their coffers.”

Specifically, if NENA can successfully demonstrate that the future of emergency communications—whether it’s data sharing between first responders in the field or the delivery of voice, video and text to 911 call centers—will rely upon IP-based emergency networks and that the funding made possible by the current bill can be used to enable all of that, there’s a better chance that the money finally will flow, Halley said.

Halley believes the Department of Transportation’s $11 million project to develop a prototype for an IP-based, next-generation enhanced 911 network architecture—work begun at Texas A&M University under a National Telecommunications & Information Administration grant—will provide the needed ammunition, because it will deliver real-world, proof-of-concept examples. “It will show that this isn’t just an idea—it’s real,” he said.

But first things first. Before the PSAP community can begin to think about how it might spend the money, NENA first must get Congress to reauthorize the ENHANCE 911 Act, which expires next year. While nothing in Washington is a slam-dunk, particularly when it comes to money, Halley feels good about the prospect of reauthorization, precisely because NENA now has a much better story to tell. “Bills have a finite life and they get reauthorized all the time,” he said. “A lot of people already are lined up to work on this.”

One of those is Brian Fontes, NENA’s new CEO, who previously served as vice president for federal relations for both AT&T Services and Cingular Wireless. He also served as the senior vice president for policy and administration at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), as FCC chief of staff and as senior adviser to FCC Commissioner James Quello.

While Fontes’ experience is more on the regulatory than legislative side of the equation, he is “an influential and intelligent person who will help with this process,” Halley said.

One thing Fontes isn’t is a miracle worker, and Halley acknowledged that getting Congress to reauthorize the ENHANCE 911 Act at the previous $1.25 billion level “might be a little unrealistic,” given the current economic climate. But it won’t matter if the money actually starts to flow, especially since it now can be used to fund exciting, forward-looking technology upgrades that will makes PSAPs—the nerve center of public-safety communications—exponentially more effective.

So the picture has brightened considerably for NENA and the PSAP community it serves. But the new bill creates a new hurdle, pointed out to me by MRT senior writer Donny Jackson this week, which bears watching. One of the reasons that Congress has failed to appropriate the money it promised four years ago is that the more populated states already have finished their Phase 2 upgrades. Which meant that they would be ineligible for any federal grants stemming from ENHANCE 911 Act appropriations.

It’s very difficult to get members of Congress to appropriate money when none of it can flow to their states. The bill currently working its way through Congress fixes that by ensuring that there will be something for everybody, but creates another concern: Will the states that have the most votes also get most of the money when it finally does begin to flow? If that happens, it’s not unreasonable to think that the country’s most densely populated states will have NG E911 services before some of their much more rural brethren even have Phase 1 service. Consider that today much of the rural West still lacks Phase 1 service—which only identifies the cell tower that handled the wireless 911 call.

It’s imperative that Congress gets the language of this bill right, so that those who eventually will write the grant guidance for the appropriations that will follow will do so in a way that ensures the funds are distributed equitably. Everyone in America should get the best 911 service possible—and it shouldn’t matter whether they live in Manhattan, New York, or Manhattan, Kansas.

E-mail me at glenn.bischoff@penton.com.