FCC commissioners call for help from Congress to make next-gen 911 deployments a reality
FCC commissioners testifying before a House subcommittee asked lawmakers for initiatives to accelerate the deployment of next-generation 911 (NG911) nationwide and to prevent the use of 911 funds for other purposes—a practice described as a “scam” and “deceptive advertising” during Tuesday’s hearing.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reiterated his ongoing plea to Congress for legislation addressing NG911 issues, noting that the FCC lacks the legal authority to tackle the matter effectively.
“The commission has gone about as far as our authority can take it,” Wheeler said during the hearing, which was webcast. “Here’s the reality: Absent congressional action, there is no national program to improve public safety by applying the technology of next-generation 911. We’re in the second decade of the 21st Century, and we’re still relying on mid-20th Century technology.”
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel echoed this sentiment, noting that deploying IP-based NG911 throughout the nation can resolve this technological gap.
“Next-generation 911 services can support a whole range of data and video communications,” Rosenworcel said. “For those who call in an emergency, it will mean the opportunity to offer real-time video from an accident. It will mean the ability to provide first responders with instantaneous pictures of a fleeing suspect or emergency incident. These capabilities can make public safety both more effective and more responsive.
“But to remake the nation’s 911 systems to fully reflect the digital age takes funding.”
And funding the migration to NG911 technology is a challenge, because public-safety answering points (PSAPs) traditionally have been funded at the local-government level, Rosenworcel said.
“There is no national program or annual federal revenue source [for 911],” she said, adding that Congress could help by ensuring that a $115 million grant program authorized in 2012—part of the same legislation that established FirstNet—be implemented.
None of lawmakers in attendance commented on any potential role that the federal government should play in the implementation of NG911, but several key members expressed concern with the longtime practice of states collecting 911 fees from consumers but using the money for budgetary purposes not associated with 911.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), said this budgetary practice that needs to be stopped, noting that “we’re not a blank check, and neither are the consumers.” Walden emphasized his position during an exchange with Wheeler.
“If I’m a consumer in Oregon, and I’m paying a 911 fee, I’m thinking that’s going to 911 services. It really irritates you to find out, as a consumer, to find out that’s just a scam.
“If this was a private entity—if this was a private phone company—how long would you put up with that on the below-the-line billing practice.”
Wheeler agreed, noting that the practice has been occurring for decades.
“If this were a commercial [entity], this would be deceptive advertising.”
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) also expressed concern about the issue of 911 fee diversion.
“I think we should seriously examine this issue of 911—the dollars that are collected by states, and God knows what they do with the money,” Eshoo said. “They use it for everything but what the dollars were collected for.
“I think there should be a nexus between the federal dollars that are expended and sent to states in order to set up what we know we need to serve the public well. If they want to take money and blow it elsewhere, I don’t think they should qualify for federal funds.”