A Different Way
In a move that was a surprise to many, AT&T vice president of federal relations Brian Fontes in May decided to leave the corporate world to become the CEO of the National Emergency Number Association. After a week on the job, Fontes — a former professor, FCC chief of staff and a member of CTIA’s regulatory team — sat down with PSAP at NENA’s annual conference in Tampa to discuss his decision and the future of 911 services.
Why did you leave AT&T to take this job with NENA?
To be honest with you, it was a huge, huge struggle. Going through this process of making a decision to leave corporate America and go to a non-profit was a discussion with myself on what my values are. Every now and then, I think we all have something that almost forces us to examine our values and why we do what we do. What I realized through all of this is that money and perks are not going to be the driver of what it is I want to do.
What is the driver is happiness, a sense of contribution, a sense of fulfillment and a sense of leading — in some shape or form, in some minor or major way, with the help of others — some sort of legacy for the good. It’s an interesting journey that I took, and I’m glad I went through it.
What attracted you to NENA?
Going back to my FCC days, through CTIA and certainly through Cingular and AT&T, I’ve always been involved in 911. Even before Docket 94-102 was created, I remember this issue of location was discussed. So I’ve been involved with it for 16 years. It’s an area that I feel I have somewhat of a background in, from a different side of the house.
[911 is] one of those things that very few people think about until they need to dial 911. Then, 911 is — literally, in many situations — the first voice of hope or help that anybody hears. It touches people; it’s as simple as that. And usually it touches people in an extraordinary time of need.
Would you have taken this job if NENA had not adopted a CEO model?
Honestly, probably not. And the reason why I wouldn’t have is because of the inconsistencies. The reason they moved to a CEO model was for continuity and consistency. If I were an executive director, I would not be on the board, I would not have a decision-making capability, and I would just be following whoever the next president is, whatever their particular wish list or mandate was. It would not have been an effective role.
What are your key policy goals?
Clearly, we have to figure what’s going to happen with the [FCC’s wireless-location] decision on 911 that’s currently stayed by the court. To the extent that the industry and public safety can sit down and reach an agreement and take something to the commission, great. If not, then we’ve got to regroup to address how we’re going to deal with this. Is the commission going to ask that the court send back the order on its own volition without further notice, or is the commission going to simply wait until the court rules?
What about the 700 MHz D Block?
We are not the primary lead on that, per se — it’s more of an APCO-related issue in terms of spectrum. But what we do have to address in that proceeding is NENA’s role with the PSST, and what — if anything — should be done with that. Also, I think our role — as well as APCO’s — would be to help identify some things that would provide some certainty and hopefully incentives to commercial interests, so they would consider bidding in this auction.
For example, we would certainly support the FCC declaring the D Block eligible for universal-service funds for high-cost areas. We also would certainly support the commission if it determines that the 10 MHz acquired in any D Block auction should not be counted in any analysis of whether a carrier has too much spectrum in any particular market.
In terms of wireless location, how accurate is “close enough”?
Let’s be very realistic about this. As the industry moves from second-generation to third- and even fourth-generation technology, most [carriers], if not all, will be moving to assisted GPS. I would rather have them spend their money on more advanced technologies for location rather than continuing to improve a technology that’s going to basically be sunsetted in five years, or however many years, down the road.
The bottom line is, where we really should be spending a lot of energy, time, talent and money, is to take a look at how location, information and data are going to be transported in an IP network.
We had a discussion in one of the sessions, and a person said, “I don’t understand how this affects location.” Well, it may not improve your lat./long., but if you can send a video or you can send some form of data, that may be able to assist a person, regardless of the [latitude/longitude] So it’s more than just lat./long., it goes to the whole notion of being able to provide information to the call-taker or the dispatcher.
For example, the person could say, “I don’t know where I’m at, but here’s a video,” and they could show a video of the Burger King across the street, and it may help somebody locate them more efficiently than if that phone were to give out a lat./long. within 300 meters or 150 meters. So, I think that’s where a lot of the research and development should go, and that’s where the networks are going — to an IP-based platform. Spend your money on where industry is going rather than where it’s been.
How should we pay for upgrades to the 911 system?
If we’re really going to deal with this problem substantively, it’s likely going to take congressional action. And the fact of the matter is, getting congressional action is never an easy thing to do. And, if we were to get congressional action, we’ve got to come to them with a very real plan.
We have the schools and library funds, part of the Universal Service Fund that was created by Congress in 1996. Why not make a public-safety and technology fund part of USF? I’m not in favor of raising everybody else’s USF contributions … but if there could be decision to ratchet down schools and library — or another category — by x percent, and those percentages go to a new public-safety fund, I think it could work. So to the person making the contribution, the dollar amount stays the same, but how that money is divvied up among the categories would change.
Does the federal government have to get involved to make sure PSAPs in less-populous states have 911 systems that are up to par?
That’s my rationale for USF-style contributions. We don’t want to have a series of have and have-not states. You want to have something consistent across the nation.