Public-safety and industry experts this week told the Senate Commerce Committee that next-generation 911 technology will greatly enhance emergency response and should be available soon, but leaders of the committee questioned how to pay for such IP-based upgrades.

Discussion of the matter occurred during a hearing addressing S.428, a bill that is designed to fill “holes” in the FCC order requiring the most popular voice-over IP (VoIP) providers to provide E911 service to their customers, said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), sponsor of the bill.

In addition to addressing several immediate issues facing VoIP providers of E911, the bill includes language to encourage migration of public-safety answering points (PSAPs) to IP-enabled technologies that would let emergency callers communicate via mediums other than voice. Such networks would be more resilient than the current 911 system, Nelson said.

But funding the capital expenditures associated with a next-generation 911 system is problematic, because many current funding models—typically based on fees charged to the ever-shrinking number of traditional fixed telephony lines—are proving to be inadequate. Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) asked panelists

“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,” Inouye said.

Committee Vice Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a co-chair of the E911 Caucus, echoed this sentiment.

“Somehow, we’ve got to have people pay for this service, or it’s not going to be sustained very long,” Stevens said. “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—but someone’s going to have to collect that money.”

Panelists generally expressed support for the direction of S.428, which would ensure that VoIP providers have access to legacy components needed to be part of the 911 system, extend liability protection to VoIP providers and PSAPs and codifies the FCC’s authority over VoIP services.

Susan O’Leary, executive vice president for VoIP provider Vonage, said 95% of her company’s customers have access to E911 and that the company hopes to reach the 100% mark by the end of the summer. Of the 5% of Vonage customers currently without E911 capability, three-fourths can be attributed to the lack of access to the 911 system—something S.428 would mandate—that often is controlled by an incumbent competitor.

“We need to ensure that 911 remains a public trust, not a tool to block competition,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary said the other reason some Vonage customers do not have E911 service is that their local PSAP will not accept emergency calls from VoIP phones, because VoIP 911 calls are not granted the liability protection that is part of the legacy system. S.428 would provide this liability parity, which is “huge” to PSAPs, said Wanda McCarley, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

McCarley suggested that language in S.428 be broadened to include more than VoIP providers, because next-generation 911 systems will be able to accept communications from virtually any device.

“911 must not be an afterthought to new consumer services,” McCarley said.

National Emergency Number Association (NENA) President Jason Barbour also said broader language should be used in anticipation of new communication services needing to access the 911 system.
“We do not need to repeat this [legislative exercise] process every time a new technology comes along,” he said