The Senate Commerce Committee yesterday approved a controversial communications-reform bill that would let $1 billion in funding earmarked for first-responder interoperability also may be used to pay for technology upgrades for public-safety answering points (PSAPs).

While the largest political issues of the comprehensive communications reform bill revolved around national video franchising, universal service funding and pre-emption of state authority to regulate the wireless industry, other aspects of the bill directly affect the 911 industry, said Patrick Halley, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

One of the amendments would let public-safety entities use $1 billion in interoperability funds supported by revenues expected from the 700 MHz auction. Although that auction will be conducted in 2008, there has been a push on Capitol Hill to make the money available as early as this fall.

Although interoperability funds typically have been limited to paying for efforts to establish radio interoperability, Halley said using interoperability funds for PSAP upgrades makes sense, because centers serve as the “eyes and the ears of the public” in fielding emergency calls.

“In our opinion, if you don’t have a fully functioning 911 system, then your overall communications system is not interoperable,” Halley said.

Congress passed a law authorizing $250 million annually during a five-year period—money that has not been appropriated to date—for PSAP upgrades to the Phase II wireless standard, which automatically provides dispatchers with the number and location of 911 calls from cell phones. An amendment in the Senate version approved yesterday would expand that definition, letting PSAPs also use any funds to pay for upgrades to IP-based technologies, Halley said.

Other NENA-supported amendments included in the Senate bill would require broadband providers to prioritize 911 calls if technically feasible, would require the new national 911 Program Office to produce a report regarding its status within 90 days of the bill being enacted, and would attempt to prevent caller ID “spoofing,” which can create confusion among consumers and 922 call takers.

“Five of the six amendments we supported passed, and there’s a promise from the chairman that the other one will be dealt with on the [Senate] floor,” Halley said.

The one amendment that did not pass was one that would specifically give state and local governments the right to collect 911 fees and enforce FCC guidelines, even if those entities no longer have regulatory jurisdiction over companies such as voice-over-IP (VoIP) providers. Halley said compromise language addressing the issue is expected to be introduced when the bill is considered on the Senate floor after July 10.