Infrastructure bill with NG911 funding debated, but Trump-Dems spat tempers hope of passage
Members of the House Commerce Committee on Wednesday discussed aspects of an $85 billion infrastructure bill that includes $12 billion for next-generation 911 (NG911) deployment, but hopes for the proposal were dampened when President Donald Trump halted talks with Democrats in a separate meeting that was happening at the same time.
Introduced last week, H.R. 2741—the “Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow’s America Act,” or LIFT America Act—is co-sponsored by 31 Democrats on the House Commerce Committee. The proposal includes $33 billion for clean-energy initiatives, $40 billion to fund broadband connections to 98% of the U.S. population and $12 billion for NG911 deployments.
Although no Republicans are listed as co-sponsors of the legislation, considerable bipartisan support was expressed by committee members that it is important for Congress to fund “rebuilding and modernizing our nation’s crumbling infrastructure,” according to committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.).
That includes the nation’s “frail 911 infrastructure,” Pallone said. With the proposed $12 billion for NG911, U.S. states and territories would work with local entities to ensure that emergency communications centers (ECCs)—traditionally known as public-safety answering points (PSAPs)—have the money needed to migrate from legacy 911 systems to the IP-based NG911 platform.
Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn testified that most 911 centers today are only able to receive voice calls, but NG911 will let citizens communicate with 911 centers via multiple technologies.
“There are too many public-safety centers that can’t take texts—you have to call,” Clyburn said during the hearing. “Not addressing this and maintaining a 50-year-old framework, which is what we’re doing now and not moving ahead, really does not allow individuals to communicate in a way [that they want], it doesn’t allow for interoperability and it doesn’t allow for us to be as safe as we need to be …
“There should be no medium that you use—video, still [photo], voice or text—that a 911 system should not be able to take. Those are the baselines of today and tomorrow, and we cannot continue to rely on a system that’s not interoperable and is not up to date. Our first responders are doing a yeoman’s job. E-911 works well. We need next-gen . This [legislative proposal] takes care of that.”
Last fall, a cost study estimated that deploying NG911 nationwide would cost between $9.5 billion and $12.7 billion over a 10-year period, so the prospective $12 billion in the legislation is in the higher end of that range. Without federal funding, many industry analysts question whether NG911 can become a reality in certain areas of the U.S., particularly in rural western communities that cannot generate significant funding via local taxation.
Overall, there was not a lot of discussion about the NG911 provisions in the infrastructure legislation, particularly when compared to the broadband, energy and drinking-water aspects of the proposal.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said that she and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.)—both members of the Next-Gen 911 Caucus—have been on the NG911 issue “like white on rice” and expressed support for the infrastructure proposal. Shimkus also expressed support for the concept but offered words of caution about the need to find payment mechanisms to fund the initiatives.
“The only thing that gives me pause on … this legislation is that this is authorization,” Shimkus said during the hearing. “Then, the question is appropriation.”
Although Shimkus seemed to be discussing all measures of the bill, the circumstances have a notable history in the 911 arena. More than a decade ago, Congress passed a bill authorizing the largest amount of federal funding for 911 upgrade ever approved, but no money to support state or local 911 efforts was ever appropriated.
Both Democrats and Republicans expressed concerns about the accuracy of existing government maps that depict broadband access, with members stating that better information is needed, so any federal funding could be directed to locations that need it. Members from both sides of the aisle cited the need for expanded broadband access, the need for clean energy and safe drinking water.
But such points of consensus were overshadowed when committee members were informed that talks between President Donald Trump and Democratic lawmakers had ceased. Trump left the meeting after informing the Democrats that he would not continue negotiations with Democrats on a $2 trillion infrastructure bill as long as they continued investigating him.
Despite the setback, Pallone tried to remain optimistic that infrastructure legislation could become law.
“I know that this meeting occurred today where the president walked out, but hopefully he’ll reconsider,” Pallone said to conclude the hearing. “Hopefully, we’ll continue to have more summits at the White House, because this is an important bill.
“I think that an infrastructure bill can be done on a bipartisan basis, so I’m going to be optimistic today.”