Assessing the Next-Gen 911 Funding Gap

While FirstNet gets $7 billion, next-gen 911 gets $150 million from the feds.

by / August 2, 2016
Next-generation 911 systems have the potential to improve emergency response and call-taking — but PSAPs have to get past the barriers to implementation first. (Flickr/Nathan Rupert)

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), designated to modernize telecommunications networks for first responders, is slated to receive 7 billion federal dollars, with funds derived from radio frequency spectrum auctions. But if first responders are going to take advantage of new broadband infrastructure and multimedia capabilities, they are going to need partner agencies in public safety access points (PSAPs) with corresponding networks and capabilities. So far, however, the federal grant funding to help PSAPs transition to next-generation 911 has been minuscule. Organizations advocating for 911 agencies have formed the NG911 NOW Coalition to focus attention on the urgency of the situation.

The current 911 infrastructure has difficulty supporting text or multimedia messaging, and it lacks the capability to interconnect with other systems and databases such as building plans and electronic medical records. There is a movement underway to move to an NG911 system based on modern Internet protocol-based networks that take advantage of capabilities like text and video messaging. Beyond receiving and sending multimedia, there are other benefits to the new types of networks. PSAPs will be able to transfer calls and activate alternative routing to share the burden during an emergency or when they are closed by disaster. Linked PSAPs will also be able to share resources such as GIS databases rather than each having to purchase its own.

To date, progress toward replacing legacy systems has been spotty across the country. Some states have switched to IP networks and begun work on receiving 911 calls via text message, yet in the most recent nationwide survey, fully half the states had made no progress yet. The members of the NG911 NOW Coalition are the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), the National Association of State 911 Administrators and the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT). They have set a target date of 2020 to have NG911 deployed across the country. That year was selected because most of the major telecom carriers, both wireline and wireless, have indicated that in 2020 they want to convert all their networks to IP technology, said Brian Fontes, NENA’s CEO. Also, FirstNet, which will be rolling out in the 2022-2023 time frame, will be all wireless IP broadband.

“We believe that in order to make a smooth transition from consumers, who will obviously be on IP networks, through to the first responders who will be on wireless IP networks, it is essential we have that same capability in our 911 centers,” Fontes said. “They must be capable of pushing and pulling data and be able to utilize videos and photographs, both to prepare responders for responding and to have a better understanding of an event itself.”

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has been a vocal advocate for NG911. In March 2 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Wheeler noted that “in too many communities, the communications technology behind the 911 system is dangerously out of date,” and that “PSAPs also face constant challenges to maintain adequate funding for ongoing operations.” He urged the committee members to do all in their power to make sure the nation’s PSAPs have the tools and resources they need to accelerate the transition to NG911.

Patrick Halley, executive director of the NG9-1-1 Institute, an organization supporting the coalition’s work, said the coalition was formed to shine a light on the fact that the U.S. needs to accelerate the deployment, both for the consumer benefits it will bring, as well as because communications networks are being upgraded and the legacy 911 infrastructure will soon be outdated and unsupported.

Setting a target date may lend some urgency to the funding issue, Halley said. “Look at the digital television transition. They set a date-certain to transition analog stations to digital. Having that date pushed everybody in the same direction, focused on how they were going to achieve that transition, and basically it worked.”

The 911 providers derive their funding from fees paid on wireless and wireline phone bills, although in many states prepaid wireless phones don’t pay a 911 fee. But many people are convinced that this recurring source of revenue is not going to be sufficient to pay for maintenance and use of the current system while simultaneously allowing PSAPs to invest in making the transition.

“Some people would say the PSAPs are getting surcharges to provide the funding for the transition, but what they are missing in that argument is that those surcharges are applied to wireless and wireline and voice over IP lines. So it is sort of like a bucket of water with a huge hole in it, and that is the wireline side,” said Darrin Reilly, iCERT’s chair.

“People are disconnecting their wirelines, and the surcharges are going down, so as you have to go through this transformation, you are losing money,” Reilly said. “We should modify the wireless charge to make up for the loss, but of course that would be challenging politically.”

An example of a state that has made good progress is Minnesota. Managed by the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Communication Networks, the 911 Program in Minnesota is completely funded by 911 fee surcharges and receives no revenue from the state’s general fund. The NG911 ESInet (Emergency Services IP Network) deployment to its 104 PSAPs costs $9 million. The time from migration of the first PSAP to completion was two years and four months. The transition was funded exclusively from 911 fees.

So do jurisdictions already have enough money to pay for the transition? “In many states, the answer is no,” Halley said. (The FCC has studied how much each state collects in 911 fees and sought to determine the percentage each was spending on components of an NG911 system, and nationwide the average is less than 10 percent.) 

Another reason a coalition was needed to raise awareness, Halley added, is that the 911 system basically works today. When you dial 911, the call goes to the right center and gets you help. There are not wide-scale failures. That fact may lower the sense of urgency on the part of policymakers.
“But the PSAPs’ capabilities are completely limited compared to what they could be, and as infrastructure providers sunset their legacy networks, it is going to be 911 systems that are out on an island,” Halley said. “So I don’t think policymakers feel that urgency to say we need to start moving forward now. We are in an era of pretty tight budgets at the state and local level. That is part of the reason we’re stalled. There is a need for a one-time infusion of money for that transition, and there is a role for Congress.”

There is an NG911 Caucus in Congress that launched in 2003. It is led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D.-Minn., and Richard Burr, R.-N.C., and Reps. Anna Eshoo, D.-Calif., and John Shimkus, R.-Ill. They have been champions for 911 and are the most likely to lead the effort on funding, but it remains difficult to get significant funding bills through Congress these days.
Jeff Cohen, chief counsel for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), said his organization believes that initially a significant amount of targeted funding is going to be necessary, especially from the federal government. “There also need to be mechanisms put in place so that after the grant funding runs out, the systems remain sufficiently funded and sustained.”

Cohen said APCO’s position is that the country needs clear definitions and standards for all aspects of NG911. “They should be created by a nationally accredited standards development organization that uses a consensus-based approach and preserves local options for deployment, but ensures that no proprietary technologies are implemented that would limit interoperability.”
APCO wants to maximize opportunities for national-level economies of scale for 911 equipment and services, which right now no one enjoys, he said. “We want to preserve local control, so states and localities have flexibility on technology choice. We want PSAPs to leverage innovation to the fullest extent.”

Laurie Flaherty is coordinator of the National 911 program in the U.S. Department of Transportation. One of her office’s responsibilities is overseeing the NG911 grant program. The amount of money that has been allocated for this grant program thus far has been relatively small, she said. From 2009 to 2012 there was $43 million from a spectrum auction that went to NG911 pilots and planning. The same spectrum that yielded $7 billion for FirstNet allocated $115 million for NG911. “They will transfer that money to us in the relatively near future,” Flaherty said. “We can start in earnest to write the regulations and set up the infrastructure to oversee the grant program. I would say in about a year from now we will make announcements about applications for these grants.”

Her office is in the middle of a two-year project to determine how much it is going to cost to implement the nationwide NG911 system. Directed by Congress to do the study, the office will issue that report in September 2017. Although she doesn’t have any specifics yet, the cost range will likely be in the billions rather than the millions.

Although federal grant funding has been limited, some states and regions have made significant progress on NG911 already, including Vermont, Tennessee, Minnesota, Maine and Washington. “A state like Vermont is so much simpler than a state like California or a home-rule state where they are so much more decentralized and just trying to agree on a plan is difficult,” Flaherty said. “In the states that have made progress, I think they have stronger leadership and have figured out a way to find the resources to do it.”

Another funding challenge that 911 systems have faced is the tendency of some states to divert money to address other emergencies such as firefighting. To obtain grant funding, 911 organizations must certify that for the 180 days immediately prior to the application they have not diverted funds to any other purpose. Flaherty said she understands why Congress made that part of the statute, “but on the other hand, I feel bad when that happens, because it penalizes the 911 system twice. They lose their own surcharge funds and then are not eligible for federal funds.”

Also, she said, if the grant funding isn’t for a considerable amount of money, it doesn’t serve as a deterrent from diverting funds. The NG911 grant program had the authority to allocate $250 million a year for five years. “Had it been appropriated at the level it was authorized,” Flaherty said, “then it might have been a more effective deterrent.”

Although the funding for the two systems is separate, Halley sees a clear reason for the FirstNet and NG911 deployments to be closely coordinated. Once we have NG911, consumers will have the ability to transfer voice, video and data directly to a 911 center. Today we can do voice only, he said. Tomorrow we will be able to share images from a phone and real-time video. It could be an image of a burglar or someone injured in an accident.

“The 911 center ought to be able to distribute that to responders in the field via a mobile data network. It is crazy to invest billions to put high-speed mobile data in the hands of first responders and invest in upgrading the 911 center so it is capable of receiving the information from consumers, and not make sure there is integration between the two,” Halley added. “This is a great opportunity. It is going to happen. It is just a matter of when and how high a priority it is.”

Flaherty also sees the importance of aligning NG911 and FirstNet. “The example I always give is if you want the photograph of the bank robber to go from the citizen’s cellphone to 911 to the emergency responder, all three components need to be operating off the same infrastructure,” she said. “So while lots of people are focusing on FirstNet, I don’t think we reach the full potential of that system unless NG911 is right next to it.”

She said her office is working to make sure the state 911 executives are present at the FirstNet consultation meetings and the FirstNet people are on the 911 boards. “Unless the right people are talking to each other, we are not going to end up with a seamless system, which is what everybody assumes is going to be in place.”

This story was originally published by Emergency Management.
 

David Raths contributing writer

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