NENA pushes for E911 reform
States and other agencies that continue to use E911 funding for other purposes likely will not be eligible to receive federal E911 grants the next time those monies become available, which probably is at least 18 months away.
That was the consensus of a panel session, “Finalizing Legislation to Advance E911,” at a recent National Emergency Number Association (NENA)-sponsored “911 Goes to Washington” conference in the nation’s capital. Political heavyweights on both sides of the aisle in both houses of Congress have vowed that wireless E911 funding would get priority and that states would be stopped from siphoning funds that should be going to E911 deployments and upgrades.
“Money is not going to be available to you if you’re raiding an E911 fund. We put a stick in this bill (HR2858) to prevent that from occurring,” said Howard Waltzman, majority counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
That’s good news to NENA President Richard Taylor, who in a recent interview stressed that the biggest problem affecting E911 deployments is that cash-strapped states continue to raid funds collected from wireless subscribers for E911.
“There’s not a state out there that hasn’t experienced a budget cut,” Taylor said. “That’s why the PSAPs (public-safety answering points) don’t have money for upgrades.”
A report issued last month by New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi said the state continues to divert more than 40% of revenues earmarked for the expansion of wireless E911 services to relieve budget pressures in its general fund. According to the report, $40.8 million was deposited into the general fund from Aug. 1, 2002, through June 30, 2003, while $57.0 million was deposited into the statewide public-safety communications account. The report indicated 21 counties in the state are Phase II compliant, while 36 counties and New York City are still waiting. Phase II of the Federal Communications Commission’s mandate requires wireless carriers and PSAPs to provide location-tracking capability.
Congressional aides on the panel said money concerns are addressed in both bills. The House version calls for $100 million in federal grant monies, while the Senate version — co-sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) — calls for $500 million. However, all of the aides noted the bills only authorize funding but don’t appropriate. That could delay funding at least 18 months, but bipartisan support for the issue means it’s likely the money will be made available eventually. But even $500 million annually might not be enough to cover what some estimates say is an $8 billion to $9 billion price tag to make all carrier networks and PSAPs Phase II compliant.
“Money is not as easy to come by as it has been in past years,” admitted Jason Mahler, a member of Rep. Anna Eshoo’s (D-Calif.) staff who promised that both houses of Congress are ready “to get moving on the funding issues.” Eshoo is a co-chair of the Congressional E911 Caucus, which is working to understand the issues slowing E911 deployments nationwide and to find workable solutions.
They’d better move quickly, said FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who noted that the FCC has “worked very aggressively with Congress” to ensure E911 issues are addressed.
“Shame on them (Congress) if they don’t get this done,” Powell said.
They’re trying, according to Burns, who along with Clinton, also is a co-chair of the Congressional E911 Caucus. (Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., is the fourth co-chair.) It was hoped that the bill would make it to the Senate floor before the holiday, or at least shortly after the break, when senators were expected to take action on the bill after quickly disposing of omnibus and transportation legislation.
It didn’t happen. In a recent interview with Mobile Radio Technology, Burns conceded that it could be weeks — maybe several months — before the Senate bill gets to the floor. Burns said he’s not concerned and stressed that the legislation has strong support on both sides of the aisle.
“Remember, it took five years to get the spam law done,” he said.
Powell also promised the “full power” of the FCC will be used to hammer “any recalcitrant carrier that will not conform” to Phase II provisions.
That means wireless carriers, who are the primary focus of NENA and other first responders. It also should mean voice-over-IP (VoIP) service providers, which are finding an increasingly large audience to whom they can sell services. Between November and March, about 10 million more broadband subscribers joined what Powell called the “digital migration” that is changing worldwide communications from analog to broadband digital. And broadband is an essential element to deliver VoIP. This migration is going to be “a challenge for public policy and public safety,” Powell said.
By recognizing broadband and its needs in the early stages of growth, emergency agencies can collaborate with private interests to resolve funding and compatibility issues, said Powell and panelists. That was not the case as wireless grew unabated without addressing obligations such as emergency services, which led to today’s sometimes-rancorous relationships between cellular carriers and emergency personnel.
“We’ve seen the difficulty of trying to retrofit,” Powell said. Broadband is a “rare opportunity to join hands” and develop solutions early that will carry over as the networks grow and such broadband-enabled characteristics as follow-me phones come into widespread use, he said. “That’s what we should be working on.”
The Senate already is, said James Assey, minority senior counsel on the Senate Commerce Committee, who said Phase II funding would address a “whole new layer” of technology to encourage a ubiquitous E911 network.
“The scope of the fund (should) be flexible to meet other challenges E911 will face,” he said.
Those challenges will include VoIP, which is “running fast towards a collision course with E911,” said Greg Rohde, executive director of the E911 Institute.
This situation is clouded by the FCC’s expected decision to view VoIP as an unregulated information service that is not obligated to fulfill restrictions and rules that have governed wireline telecommunications services over the years. This means VoIP customers likely would not be forced to pay surcharges to fund 911 services, although most VoIP providers say they are willing to contribute to such funds.
“We require certain consumer baseline productions,” said Assey, who expressed fears that a headlong charge into unregulated VoIP will cause “something we regret.”
Waltzman said those protections shouldn’t hinder the growth of new telecom services, which is important as government tries to ensure “that regulations don’t choke VoIP.”
Like Powell, Waltzman encouraged collaboration between VoIP providers and the first-responder community, such as the talks between NENA and the Voice on the Network (VON) Coalition.
Powell agreed he would like to see a “collaborative effort” in VOIP’s early stages and promised that public safety will be part of the “launching pad” for broadband VoIP.
After all, the inevitable expansion of broadband technology is not a bad thing, Powell said.
“It’s going to be a cheaper and easier migration path into the future,” he concluded.
With reporting by Glenn Bischoff in Chicago