No clear plans for federal NG911 legislation, but funding hope remains, NENA chief says
Hope for legislation that would allocate billions in federal funding to help pay for 911 call centers’ transition to IP-based, next-generation 911 (NG911) technology remains, although no NG911 bills currently are on the verge of being introduced, according to National Emergency Number Associations (NENA) CEO Brian Fontes.
“I think there’s interest and support to improve 911 and next-generation 911,” Fontes told IWCE’s Urgent Communications yesterday. “Hopefully, we’ll get legislation introduced in this Congress, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Many in the public-safety community have debated whether NG911 funding has a better chance of passing as a standalone bill or as part of larger legislation. Proponents of the latter option note that the legislation that established the FirstNet initiative passed as part of a massive omnibus bill after failing to gain support as a standalone item.
Fontes said he is not sure what strategy would be best.
“It’s unclear at this point,” he said. “There is no legislation scheduled to be introduced, but it’s unclear whether standalone legislation or legislation incorporating it into a broader bill, a reauthorization bill or something would be a preferred vehicle.”
Fontes made the statements just a few days after the conclusion of NENA’s “911 Goes to Washington” event that was conducted last week. During the annual event in Washington, D.C., 911 representatives meet with key officials on Capitol Hill and at the FCC to discuss key policy issues facing the 911 industry.
Fontes said he believes the event “went well,” noting that attendees were particularly encouraged by plans from Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) to introduce legislation that that would reclassify 911 telecommunicators from the current “clerical” category to the “protective service” category with other first responders.
While this legislative plan from Torres is clear, the path to federal funding that would help pay for the equipment upgrade needed to transition public-safety answering points from legacy systems—based largely on technology that was designed 50 years ago—to IP-based, NG911 technology is fuzzy, at best.
During the last Congress, NG911 legislation introduced in the Senate in November 2017 initially was co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Nelson is no longer in the Senate after losing a narrow election last November to Republican Rick Scott. Klobuchar—one of the leaders of the Next-Gen 911 Caucus—has announced her candidacy for the 2020 presidential election.
In 2018, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) agreed to co-sponsor the Senate version of the NG911 bill.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.)—another leader of the Next-Gen 911 Caucus—introduced a related NG911 bill in the House in December 2017. This bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.)—now chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee—and Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.).
Neither piece of legislation gained any traction during the 115th Congress, with both failing to even be considered at a subcommittee level. From a political standpoint, no Republicans co-sponsored either bill at a time when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate.
“The only way it will get passed through Congress is if it’s bipartisan and in both houses,” Fontes said. “I think it will be the merits of the legislation and the need for it that will be the driving force.”
A fundamental problem associated with the 911 bills last year was the fact that they called for federal funding to support the transition to 911 but did not include proposed funding amount.
In October 2015, the 911 National Program Office contracted with Mission Critical Partners to prepare a study outlining the costs associated with transitioning the 911 system to a next-generation platform. This cost study was not released until October 2018, more than a year after the report initially was submitted. With mid-term elections less than a month away and Congress divided along partisan lines, no Beltway sources offered even a glimmer of hope that the topic of NG911 would be broached during the final days of the 115th Congress.
That cost study outlined three potential NG911 deployment approaches that called for the federal government to provide between $9.5 billion and $12.7 billion over a 10-year period. Having the cost study completed should help lawmakers evaluate potential NG911 funding legislation, according to Fontes.
“I think it will help,” Fontes said. “You can’t have legislation with a dollar figure without knowing what the dollar figure is. Now, we know from OMB what the dollar figure is, so that’s got to help provide the framework for which we’re talking about a dollar commitment from the federal government.”
But having a completed cost study does not mean that passing federal legislation for NG911 is imminent, according to many Beltway and public-safety sources.
Most who have looked at the subject acknowledge the need to modernize the 911 system, which was designed to answer emergency voice calls from fixed telephony lines, not multimedia—voice, data, photos and video—from a mobile populace that communicates with PSAPs largely from smart devices. In addition, most in public safety agree that federal funding is needed to implement NG911 throughout the United States, as opposed to being deployed only in geographic locations where funding is available.
Beyond these fundamental perspectives, consensus about the best way to ensure that NG911 service is provided nationwide is lacking.
Historically, 911 has been funded at the state and local levels, with virtually no meaningful financial support from Congress reaching the more than 6,000 PSAPs in the U.S. If the federal government assumes a significant role, many wonder whether the federal lawmakers would fund the NG911 without also seeking greater rules and oversight, much as it did with the establishment of the FirstNet initiative. Meanwhile, some question whether Congress wants to fund NG911 deployment when other high-profile goals also lack funding.
Others question exactly how funding for NG911 should be distributed to maximize its effect. In many cases, funding is needed most in less-populous states that lack the ability to generate the revenue needed to fund the NG911 transition from 911 fees, which is different than the typical population-based model used for most funding initiatives from Congress.
Meanwhile, the notion of PSAP consolidation—be it physical consolidation or virtual sharing of resources on a regional basis, which is technically possible when 911 centers are linked via broadband—also is a potential sticking point. If the goal is to make NG911 service a reality in all PSAPs, it is unclear how funding can be distributed in a manner that is both fair and effective, given the fact that some states have several hundred PSAPs and others have as few as one.
Making this funding-distribution task more difficult is that existing efforts to implement NG911 technology differ widely in states throughout the country. Some states have established ESInets—the broadband-network foundation linking PSAPs to each other for NG911—and have implemented initial steps like text-to-911 functionality, while other states have made little or no progress toward deploying NG911. As a result, funding needs can vary widely, based on the financial situation for each state.
In addition, there are questions whether some states have been using existing 911 funding revenue appropriately, which has created doubts whether providing additional funding is the best idea. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai noted that the practice of 911 fee diversion “makes me and lot of other people angry” during a speech delivered last week as part of the “911 Goes to Washington” event.
“Our most recent report found that in 2017, six states and one territory siphoned off $285 million,” according to Pai’s prepared remarks. “For context, our survey also found that $199 million from 911 fees went toward implementing NG911. When more 911 fees are going to non-911 purposes than to the deployment of the next generation of 911 technologies, that’s an outrage ….
“In light of the fact that this is the tenth iteration of this report and we still see states diverting funds, it’s clear that transparency alone isn’t enough to shame the offending states into doing the right thing. I’m ready and willing to work with Congress and other stakeholders to make sure that all public-safety communications fees strengthen the public-safety communications system.”