Nebraska wants to triple E911 surcharge
No public-safety answering point in the state of Nebraska can provide location capabilities in compliance with the FCC’s Phase II requirements, and one state senator wants to change that. Tom Baker recently introduced legislation that would remove the current cap on surcharges collected from wireless subscribers for enhanced 911 services, which could result in the surcharge being raised from 50¢ to as much as $1.50.
But the bigger problem is that only half of Nebraska’s PSAPs are even Phase I-compliant, a situation that is fairly typical in states west of the Mississippi River (see map).
Baker introduced the legislation just eight days after a young Nebraska couple died in a snowstorm after dispatchers couldn’t locate them, even though the couple called 911 five times from their wireless phone. The couple’s plight was exacerbated because they allegedly were disoriented at the time.
Toxicology tests showed that both had “higher than therapeutic amounts” of methamphetamine in their systems at the time of their deaths, according to a report by KSAT-TV in Omaha, Neb. The levels were so high, according to the report, that they could have been disoriented when they spoke to dispatchers, which would have made it very difficult for the call takers to help them without location capability.
But Jill Becker, counsel for the legislature’s transportation and telecommunications committee, said the bill isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy.
“He introduced the bill on behalf of the public-service commission, which has been looking at this since [March 2004],” Becker said. “This was in the works long before the incident took place. The timing was coincidental.”
Becker said Nebraska’s current 50¢ surcharge is not unusual, citing statistics that indicate only nine states have surcharges of a dollar or more — Idaho, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia. Three states — Hawaii, Missouri and Wyoming — collect no wireless E911 surcharges at all.
Even if the bill becomes law, it could have limited impact given Nebraska’ less-than-dense populations and the number of wireless 911 calls its residents make.
“Because we don’t have a high population concentrated in a short area, costs are going to be more because we have to cover the whole state, and we’re covering such a wide area,” Becker said. “Currently, our public-service commission estimates we have 850,000 wireless customers paying the surcharge. Obviously, we don’t have 20 million people paying this every month because that would make a big difference.”
Steve Seitz, legal and government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association, a call center trade group, agreed that Phase II compliance generally is an issue of the haves versus the have-nots.
“Most of the Phase II requests have come from the more sophisticated public-safety answering points that have more access to resources and have more carriers in their area that can do Phase II,” he said.
Consequently, Baker’s bill is a step in the right direction, said Seitz, who bemoaned the lack of adequate cost recovery mechanisms across the nation.
“PSAPs are rubbing nickels together just to stay afloat, and they can’t do the upgrades needed for Phase II,” he said. “For example, if Cingular is in your area, they have a network-based solution, so within six months of your request, they’re there. But if you’re in rural Wyoming and have some third-tier carrier that doesn’t serve a lot of customers, that carrier might have a lot more obstacles to go through to get to Phase II, not the least of which is cost.”
To be Phase I-compliant, a call center must be able to receive the wireless callback number and identify the cell tower that handled the call. Such information is crucial in instances where the call is dropped and also aids in identifying the caller. In Phase II, call takers are able to receive both the caller’s wireless phone number and their location information.
Originally, PSAPs were supposed to be Phase I-compliant by the end of 1998 and Phase II-compliant by the end of 2001, but the FCC later issued blanket waivers that made those deadlines moot, according to Seitz. The current deadline for Phase II compliance is the end of this year.
Seitz said the data concerning Phase I penetration nationwide is somewhat skewed because Phase I is not a prerequisite for becoming Phase II-compliant, and some states, notably California, chose to leapfrog the earlier stage.
“There are a couple of places that have done that,” he said. “California’s original point was, ‘Why are we going to spend a bunch of money on Phase I when we can just go right to Phase II.’ Once you’re Phase II ready, you’re also doing Phase I.”
More startling — and is the number of PSAPs nationwide that have yet to implement wireline enhanced 911, Seitz said.
“If you can’t do wireline E911, you can’t do wireless,” he said. “That just happens more out west. It could be because of population [density], topography or the way the call center is set up. But the issues out west are more magnified and deeper.”
While federal legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2004 created a national coordination center to oversee PSAP upgrades nationwide, its efforts could be limited because the FCC has no authority over the call centers, Seitz said.
“There are only so many hooks into that community,” he said. “[The pressure is] going to have to come from local elected officials and the state boards.”
The FCC might have created another problem with action it took at its regularly scheduled meeting last month. In the item, the FCC approved an extension of the commission’s truth-in-billing guidelines governing wireline telecom carriers to wireless carriers, which have long opposed the inclusion of fees established by individual state public utility commissions.
The commission also issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to seek comment on whether other billing areas exist where the FCC might pre-empt states.
While FCC officials emphasized that the vote will not impact state E911 charges, Commissioner Michael Copps, citing the NPRM, said such efforts to raise funds for PSAP could be in jeopardy.
“The majority tentatively concluded that it should pre-empt all state laws involving billing clarity that are more extensive than our minimal federal requirements,” Copps said. “As I understand it, this could even apply to wireline as well as to wireless bills.”