Patrick Halley

It is Time to Fully Fund Next Generation 911 in America – Let’s Look to the Airwaves

April is National 911 Education Month and last week was National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, a time of year when we thank our nation’s first responders for being there for all of us in some of the most vulnerable moments in our lives. Over 240 million 911 calls are made every year, received by highly trained professionals who listen and react with skill and poise, ensuring that emergency services are quickly dispatched to help those in need. Countless lives are saved every day across America thanks to our 911 system.

But 911 telecommunicators deserve more than just our praise. They (and the citizens they serve) deserve access to a modern next generation 911 (NG911) system in every community, a reliable and resilient system that not only receives voice calls but can also communicate via text and video and receive data from the multitude of devices and systems that are interconnected in our modern digital world.

We have come a long way since the first 911 call was placed in Haleyville (no relation), Alabama, in February 1968 – from the world of rotary phones to the world of smartphones. But while the technology in our hands, in our cars and in our homes has progressed beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, the 911 system in many parts of the country remains stuck in the past.

One of the main reasons for the slow transition to NG911 is a persistent lack of funding. Our emergency calling systems are funded in large part by monthly 911 fees on phone bills, funds that are necessary to operate and maintain the current system, yet rarely enough to upgrade (really replace) the current E911 system. Notwithstanding a lot of discussion on the need for more funding, the federal government has never made significant funding available for NG911. Even a trillion dollar infrastructure package didn’t manage to include funding. We can do better. We must do better. Every American deserves better.

Congress has considered legislation to fund NG911, which it should pass. More recently, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called on Congress to give the FCC authority to set aside a portion of future spectrum auction proceeds for NG911. The FCC’s spectrum auction authority must be reauthorized by September 30. As Congress considers legislation to extend it, the chairwoman has proposed that the first funds raised from the FCC’s next auctions be used to support a nationwide upgrade of 911.

This would not be the first time Congress kick-started a critical public safety initiative in this manner. In Section 6413 of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, Congress authorized the FCC to set aside spectrum auction proceeds in to a Public Safety Trust Fund. After a very successful AWS-3 auction concluded in early 2015, $7 billion was made available for FirstNet, a nationwide public safety broadband network. While not as widely discussed, that same auction also produced $115 million for 911 grants, a nice down payment but a tiny fraction of what is needed for nationwide NG911 deployment. Using auction revenues to help launch national public safety initiatives was a great idea then, and it is a great idea today.

Chairwoman Rosenworcel calls the effort next-generation spectrum for next-generation 911. USTelecom supports this proposal and urges Congress to implement the chairwoman’s request. There may be other good uses for FCC spectrum auction proceeds, but there is no doubt that upgrading our nation’s 911 infrastructure is among the most essential.

Patrick Halley is Senior Vice President of Policy & Advocacy and General Counsel at USTelecom – The Broadband Association. He is also a board member (and former Executive Director) of the NG911 Institute, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization that works with the Congressional NextGen 911 Caucus to promote the deployment of advanced and effective NG911 services throughout the nation.