Speakers: Next-generation 911 progressing, but key questions remain
CHICAGO—Next-generation 911 (NG911) standards and development continue to progress, but the much-anticipated emergency-calling technology still faces a host of funding and policy challenges, according to speakers at this week’s IWCE’s Critical LTE Communications Forum.
Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), said the need for NG911 is especially apparent as first responders adopt FirstNet and join the consumer public as users of IP-based wireless broadband, while legacy 911 centers are using decades-old technology.
“The missing link between the consumer … and the field responders that will be utilizing the IP broadband network—otherwise known as FirstNet—is that 911 center,” Fontes said during a session on Wednesday. “And that 911 center is basically stuck in last-century technology.”
With NG911, the 911 system would migrate to a flexible IP-based platform that would let public-safety answering points (PSAPs) accept text, data and video communications, as well as traditional voice calls, Fontes said.
“There’s nothing wrong with voice,” he said. “But you may also want to be able to supplement your verbal communication with data and information that would be pertinent to your condition or the condition of the person that you are calling on behalf of.
“That opportunity to utilize that rich information fails at the doorsteps of 911. Next-generation 911 is … changing that, to [ensure that 911 personnel will] be on par with what the public has at their fingertips and what the FirstNet field responders will have at their fingertips. We have a ways to go.”
A key step is a new funding source—notably an infusion of money from the federal government, Fontes said. Current state and local funding sources typically are only enough to maintain and operate the existing emergency-calling system, not pay for the technological upgrades that are needed to make NG911 a reality nationwide,
A recently released cost estimate indicates that Congress would need to provide $9.5 billion to $12.7 billion to fund NG911 deployments nationwide. This amount would dwarf the $158 million that Congress has provided for NG911 during the past 14 years.
Walt Magnussen, director of the Texas A&M University Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center (ITEC), said his experience testifying about 911 on Capitol Hill have convinced him that there is “very good, bipartisan support” for NG911 funding, particularly if it is part of a larger infrastructure package.
“This doesn’t appear to be a contested issue, in terms of whether or not it’s needed and whether or not it’s a good thing,” Magnussen said during the session.
“It seems to be a harder sell, if it has to be a standalone bill. But, if it can be rolled into the infrastructure bill … nobody that we were talking to seemed to have any pushback against that at all.”
Andrew Seybold, a wireless consultant who moderated the session, noted that including public safety in a larger funding initiative was crucial for the establishment of FirstNet.
“We never would have gotten FirstNet passed, if it was a standalone bill, as we tried four times,” Seybold said. “It was only when it got wrapped into another bill that we got it. It could be the same thing here [for NG911].”
Fontes agreed that there is bipartisan support for the concept of NG911 funding but expressed caution about the notion of including NG911 in a larger funding plan. Congress has used a “waterfall effect”—in which certain items are funded only after new revenues have been generated—in past federal 911 funding efforts, he said. A similar approach for this key NG911 initiative would be problematic.
“In an infrastructure bill, the position of next-generation 911 cannot be on the third, fourth or fifth tier of any cascading funding model,” Fontes said.
Progress on the technical front is being made, with NENA’s i3 standard being adopted in all U.S. NG911 procurements and as a basis for emergency-calling systems in Canada, Fontes said. NENA hopes to complete the public-comment process about the third revision of the i3 standard by the end of the year, so the standard can be delivered to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) for ratification.
If vendors follow the i3 standard, PSAPs should be able to communicate with one another. However, Fontes expressed concern that he is not certain that all of the ESInets being deployed by states and localities today will support such interoperability. After the session, Fontes said that he supports conformance testing to ensure that NG911 solutions work with each other.
Magnussen said he is worried about language in FirstNet legislation that calls for “seamless interoperability” between 911 centers and FirstNet without any details, noting that “leaves a whole lot of room for interpretation or guessing” by vendors.
In addition, Magnussen noted that it may be difficult to architect NG911 systems that work well with all versions of computer-aided-dispatch (CAD) systems that are on the market today.
“Everything that goes from NG911 through dispatch hits the CAD system,” Magnussen said. “And, if you want to talk about an area that’s totally lacking and void of any kind of standardization at all, that’s the CAD industry.
“So, we have to take standards-based SIP services—and it says we have to have interoperability over here through standards-based services—and we’re going to be forced to run it through a [CAD] system that doesn’t know what a standard is. We have some serious work to do there.”
Fontes also cited several potential policy and business-model issues associated with NG911 that need to be resolved, such as terms of interconnection and what level of oversight state commissions would have over the implementation and operation of NG911 within their jurisdictions. If not handled correctly, the situation could become a “regulatory morass” that could delay or otherwise hamper NG911 deployment, he said.