March 29, 2017–Several advocates of next-generation 911 service today urged Congress to provide funding for the adoption of such services by states and localities overseeing the 6,800 public safety answering points (PSAPs) in the U.S., but also indicated that the price tag for such an adoption effort remains unclear.
At a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s communications and technology subcommittee, Trey Forgety, director-government affairs and regulatory counsel for the National Emergency Number Association, said that Congress “should accelerate NG9-1-1 deployment by making a one-time investment in the capital infrastructure and transitions costs of NG9-1-1 systems at the state and local levels.”
Warning that the transition from enhanced 911 systems to NG-911 systems will be “expensive,” he said that NENA “is convinced that a one-time infusion of federal capital, coupled with an appropriate matching component at the state level, can significantly accelerate the transition, lowering the long-term costs of the transition for every level of government.”
In urging that Congress provide funding, Mr. Forgety said that existing state and local funding mechanisms currently cover maintenance and operations of legacy 911 systems, “with little room to enable the technical transition” to NG-911 systems. And he warned that delaying the NG-911 transition “will cause state and local costs to explode as legacy infrastructure maintenance overtakes the cost of providing basic services to the public.”
Walt Magnussen, director of the Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center at Texas A&M University, said that “additional federal and/or state funding will be required to get the industry through the transition” to NG-911, and that the funding will be needed to “support legacy systems, NG systems, and the transition elements connecting the two networks during the transition.”
Asked by Rep. John Shimkus (R., Ill.) how much federal funding will be required to support the NG-911 transition, Mr. Magnussen said his organization currently was working on an interim study to arrive at an estimate, but he warned that “coming up with an accurate number is very difficult” because of wide variances in costs on a state-by-state basis. Mr. Magnussen told Rep. Shimkus he thought his organization might be ready to communicate the results of its interim study in the next three to four weeks, but in his prepared testimony also said that “the final funding amount, and the ways and means of funding distribution should be based upon the cost study currently underway” by the Department of Transportation. That study, he said, should be released “later in 2017.”
Barry Ritter, executive director of the Indiana Statewide 911 board, said that his state is expected to complete a transition to serve all PSAPs in the state with an NG-911 network by the fourth quarter of this year, and he estimated that the annual costs for doing so to be incurred by the state’s 911 board will total about $15 million.
While emphasizing that 911 needs to remain a “local service,” he said that larger leadership for the nationwide transition to NG-911 “needs to start here at the federal level.” He continued, “It is important to understand that funding alone is not enough to achieve NG911 in the U.S. Leadership, collaboration and cooperation between local, state and federal government and between industry partners and industry associations is also a must.”
Mary Boyd, vice president-regulatory, policy and external affairs at West Safety Services and testifying on behalf of the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT), also called on Congress to provide “transition funding” for NG-911, and noted that deployment of current 911 services in the U.S. was also helped by federal government funding. “iCERT believes that Congress should take a cooperative leadership role through bipartisan consensus legislation that makes NG911 funding and implementation a national priority, and we applaud the current initial efforts underway,” Ms. Boyd said. “Any discussion of a larger infrastructure effort would be incomplete if it did not include an NG911 initiative at its core. It’s important to recall that incentive leadership for 911 and public safety is not a new role for Congress, but a return to one of its core values – protecting the American people,” she said.
Subcommittee members expressed no opposition to the NG-911 transition, but also did not discuss in any detail of how much funding Congress might try to find to help the effort. “Realizing NG911 services throughout the Nation is critical, but as with any largescale transition there are challenges that must be overcome,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), chairman of the subcommittee.
“Issues regarding such matters as funding, governance, ensuring the security of the network are but a few,” she said. “The cost will be significant. Yet while funding is a challenge, studies reveal a troubling pattern whereby some states divert money collected from consumers intended for 911 services that could assist with the NG911 transition. The FCC reports that approximately $220 million – or 8.4 percent of the total amount of fees collected by the states to fund 911 was diverted for non 911 purposes in 2015. Every member of this Committee should agree to work together to tackle this issue aggressively.”
Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.), chairman of the full committee, said Congress took steps to spur the NG-911 transition in 2012 with passage of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, including asking for a report on the cost of the transition, and establishing a matching grant program. “Unfortunately, for reasons that were never made clear in response to our bipartisan inquiries, the prior administration didn’t get that funding out of the door nor did they produce the report,” he said.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.), ranking member of the full committee, said that “passing a national infrastructure bill presents us with the unique opportunity” to assist the NG-911 transition “in the right way.”
Mr. Forgety also said NENA wanted to work with members of Congress to “find solutions that reward states for spending their 9-1-1 fees appropriately,” rather than diverting those fees to other purposes. He added, however, that 911 systems should not be penalized for “decisions that are beyond their control.”
Each of the witnesses also said they thought it was important to spur NG-911 deployment in line with construction of the public safety broadband network that will be overseen by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), saying that while the FirstNet system will operate separately from 911 systems, each will work better together if they can receive and transmit IP-based communications.
“We recognize that the NG911 network, while separate from FirstNet will serve a critical role in the larger public safety broadband initiative,” Mr. Ritter said. “Citizens reporting an emergency could improve public safety using video, pictures or other data which can be processed and delivered to the PSAP using NG911 standards. A FirstNet connected PSAP could then relay this same information to, and receive from first responders, data to improve service.” – John Curran