This article orginally appeared in Urgent Communications. The online version can be viewed here.
U.S. House members this week approved a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill that includes $12 billion in funding for next-generation 911 (NG911) deployments, but the spending proposal is not expected to be considered seriously by the Senate, according to numerous Beltway sources and media reports.
On Wednesday, House members approved the massive infrastructure package—knowns as H.R. 2—by a 222-183 vote that largely followed party lines. No Republican voted for the measure, with many expressing opposition to several climate-focused item and noting that their input was not included in the proposal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly describe the House infrastructure proposal as “nonsense” and “absurd” while stating that the Senate would not vote on the legislation.
“NENA’s current posture at this point is that … we are ecstatic that … all of the requisite parties have—on the record—expressed interest in next-generation 911 funding in some way, shape or form—House and Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats and House Democrats,” Henry said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications.
“As far as I know, this is somewhere we haven’t been before, where we have the sort of on-the-record, very real interest from the Hill on this subject. In terms of specifics, all of that is still up in the air.”
Indeed, the NG911-funding language included in the H.R. 2 infrastructure proposal is the language found in a standalone bill proposed by Rep. Anna Eshoo (R-Calif.) that called for $12 billion in federal funding to upgrade 911 centers nationwide to IP-based NG911 platforms.
However, a group of public-safety organizations—among them, the Major County Sheriffs of America, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO)—have been developing NG911 legislative language that includes funding for cybersecurity and training. This group has not released the draft language of its legislative proposal, but multiple representatives have confirmed to IWCE’s Urgent Communications that the proposal calls for about $15 billion in federal funding for NG911.
Representatives of this group and APCO declined to comment on the House passage of the H.R. 2 infrastructure package.
After meeting initially with this new group in March, NENA officials have not been part of the group’s more recent meetings in recent months. There have been informal communications between NENA and the new group during this time period, according to multiple sources.
Conceptually, all public-safety agencies agree that federal funding is needed to ensure that all 911 centers in the U.S. can upgrade from legacy technology—based largely on telephony landline usage in the late 1960s and 1970s—to NG911 platforms that can support IP-based voice, data, text and video communications.
Having this capability within the 911 system is particularly important, because it serves as the link between the general public—those making 911 calls—and public safety in the field—those responding to 911 calls—when those groups utilize broadband communications regularly, according to NENA CEO Brian Fontes.
“We live in a data-driven environment; it doesn’t take an Einstein to figure that out,” Fontes said recently during a keynote interview during a virtual event conducted by Mission Critical Partners. But to weaken—to harm, to step back into the last century—that 911 link in the chain of public safety because of the lack of funding to ensure that next-generation 911 is deployed nationwide is extraordinarily unfortunate.
“So, I think that certainly many members of Congress, certainly those in the public-safety field and actually the public, recognize that we need to move in this direction. There is support, I believe, in moving legislation forward to fund next-generation 911.”
There is consensus within the public-safety community that NG911 is needed and that federal funding will be required to ensure that NG911 is available throughout the U.S., as opposed to becoming a reality only in locations with more robust 911 revenue sources.
Despite this conceptual consensus about the NG911 vision, similar agreement does not exist on some of the details associated with actually making the vision a reality. Key items still being debated include how to ensure that NG911 is implemented in a manner that would make all 911 centers interoperable in a standards-based environment, particularly since many state and local government already have made substantial investments in NG911 infrastructure.
In addition, there are considerable questions about how federal funding for NG911 should be disbursed.
If the federal government does provide funding for NG911, there has been considerable debate who would receive the funds—for instance, whether funding should be given directly to 911 centers or to the states, which could determine the best way to provide NG911 within its jurisdiction.
Also troubling is the fact that NG911 is most needed in sparsely populated locations that do not generate enough 911 revenue locally to fund 911 upgrades, but most funding programs approved by Congress tend to divert more money to population centers—some of which already have made significant NG911 investments. Given this, establishing a fair model that lawmakers can support while also ensuring NG911 services are available nationwide may not be a straightforward process.
Finally, the federal government historically has played little or no role in 911 funding, leaving the matter to state and local jurisdictions. Some have speculated whether the Congress will seek a more prominent federal-government role in any NG911 funding legislation, as it did by creating the FirstNet Authority in 2012 to provide a nationwide broadband communications system for first responders in the field.
Most Beltway sources do not believe an infrastructure bill will be passed before the November elections. There is a chance that at least one more large stimulus bill associated with the COVID-19 response could be approved before November, but there is no indication at this time that NG911 funding would be part of such legislation, according to multiple sources.