In February, a draft bill emerged, co-sponsored by senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Bill Nelson (D‑Fla.) that if enacted, would make the transition from legacy 911 to Next Generation 911 (NG911) a “national imperative.” Among other things, the bill calls for the creation of a federal grant program that would assist states and localities as they transition to NG911, and stipulates that any state receiving funds from this grant program would need to certify that the money only would be used for NG911 implementations.
This is exciting news for the 911 industry. Why?
The NG911 migration needs the same sort of seed money that Congress provided to the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is overseeing the build-out of FirstNet’s Internet Protocol-based Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). [You can read more about this in our earlier post, “The Time is Now for Congress to Champion NG911.”]
NG911 will be expensive and fund diversion remains
a major issue
Ensuring that the grant awards will be used solely for NG911 implementations is brilliant, because 911 fund diversion still is a big problem.
According to the latest Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report to Congress on 911 fee collection and disbursement, which is delivered annually, eight states—Iowa, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington and West Virginia—and Puerto Rico diverted money collected to support 911 service to other purposes in calendar year 2015. (The amount diverted totaled $220.3 million, or 8.4 percent of the total 911 fees collected.)
It would be great if the bill went even further by forcing states to certify that every dollar collected in 911 fees was spent on provisioning 911 services before they could be deemed eligible for an NG911 grant award.
Funding is a huge issue in the 911 sector—there simply is not enough of it. Due to the lack of funding, many PSAPs today are struggling to provide basic services and to keep their legacy systems operational. The NG911 migration will be expensive. For many PSAPs today, it is beyond their financial reach. They are going to need every dollar they can get their hands on, and that means ending, once and for all, the practice of 911 fund diversion, which has been in vogue for far too long.
An outdated network architecture that is hindering our progress
Another issue is that public safety agencies need to plan the retirement of their legacy 911 systems, which are ill suited for an environment that increasingly is dominated by digital and IP technology. Continuing the practice of integrating 911 advanced services with a network architecture that was implemented in the 1960s is a flawed strategy that will slow the migration to NG911 and deprive first responders of new types of communications that will help them do their jobs better and keep them safer.
Adding to this, legacy 911 systems are poor investments that provide low-value returns on those investments. Said another way, these systems requires an enormous amount of money that would be spent better on next-generation technology, a critical consideration when money is in short supply. As these systems get older, they will become even more expensive to maintain, driven by the ending of manufacturer support and the ensuing scarcity of replacement parts.
A step towards integrated public safety communications
As exciting as all of this is, it is not the most exciting aspect of the draft bill. Buried deep in the language is a single paragraph that would have enormous impact, as it calls for the integration of NG911 and the NPSBN being implemented by FirstNet.
This is incredibly important. Integrating these two IP-based, broadband-enabled networks—which currently are being implemented in parallel—would result in greater operational synergies, financial efficiencies and cybersecurity protections.
Billions of dollars will be invested in capital and user fees over the next couple of decades to enhance public safety communications. It makes no sense at all in today’s environment to duplicate efforts by building two separate networks. As Jay English—at the time the director of communications center and 911 services for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO)—astutely observed at an APCO conference three years ago, NG911 and the NPSBN are “two halves of the same whole.” (For more depth on this topic, read our latest Industry Vision Report, “The National Public Safety Broadband Network and Next Generation 911: Maximizing their Potential.”
The Klobuchar-Nelson bill will be sliced and diced numerous times as it goes through the legislative process. Let’s all hope that this small but powerful paragraph survives.