By James Careless
It was the kind of funding news that many first responders were hoping for. On February 22, 2022, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed using revenues from future spectrum auctions to fund Next Gen (NG) 911 rollouts across the United States. She made the proposal during a speech at Washington’s National Press Club to mark FirstNet’s 10th anniversary.
“Historically, our nation’s 911 systems have been updated through fees on bills and a mix of town, county, and state funding measures. But as with first responder communications, it’s time for a nationwide, digital upgrade,” said Rosenworcel. “Once again, we would be using the auction of public airwaves to support public safety. And the funds would flow to every state and jurisdiction with 911 call centers to help make next-generation 911 a reality nationwide.”
Rosenworcel’s Next Gen 911 funding proposal was welcomed by retired NYPD Deputy Police Chief Chuck Dowd, who spent the last 12 years of his career in charge of New York City’s 911 systems. “I think it’s a great idea,” Dowd said. “Most larger municipalities and counties can usually manage funding these kinds of 911 services. But when it comes to more rural counties and smaller towns, it’s almost impossible for them to fund this on their own. So having a funding mechanism in place on a nationwide basis would be very helpful.”
“I’m quite partial to Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s concept of using spectrum auction proceeds to give an immediate lift to Next Gen 911,” said Fire Chief Jeff Johnson (Ret), CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association. “It’s a really rational way to take a national asset, which is spectrum, and leverage it to boost the part of the public safety communications system that’s lagging the most. Her vision is insightful, and I think she has this right.”
“I do think that the strategy the FCC proposed about auction proceeds would be the most reasonable way to secure dedicated funding for NG 911 deployment,” observed Chris Fischer, Past President of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International and Interim Deputy Director of the Seattle 911 Center. “I’m not clear on the exact amounts needed for initial funding but I do know that a mechanism needs to be established to support on-going support and operations for those agencies whose 9-1-1 revenues won’t cover the operational costs going forward. Many states have adopted a statewide plan but funding appears to be the holdup for many.”
A Piecemeal Process
At present, Next Gen 911 system upgrades are being funded by local and regional jurisdictions using their existing revenue streams. “Today, a typical 911 agency receives its funding from 911 fees charged by commercial wireless carriers,” said Fire Chief Johnson. “That money filters down to the states, and then down to local governments to run the PSAPs.” In many cases, those local governments count on that money to run small town police departments and rural sheriffs’ departments, he noted. 911 service is just one of the items in their budgets, and often it’s at the bottom of their lists below payroll, police vehicles, and firearms.
Given the low rank of 911 service in this hierarchy, it is not surprising that the Next Gen 911 rollout is a piecemeal process across the United States. Big cities and prosperous rural areas with the tax base to support their police/sheriffs’ departments can afford to use their 911 revenues to finance NG 911 upgrades now. But those who lack such resources have little choice but to put Next Gen 911 on the back burners, until something like the FCC’s proposed funding comes into being.
This analysis aligns with Chris Fischer’s assessment of Next Gen 911 deployments in this country. “Many states have developed NG 911 plans, and deployed networks and mapping to support Next Generation technologies, but this tends to be the more progressive, well funded areas of the country,” she said. “Most states are beginning to undertake planning but still lack the funding to move forward.”
For his part, Fischer advocates a national Next Gen 911 system similar to the FirstNet system. “If there isn’t a nationwide NG 911 network, the chance of success is rather slim,” she said. “Much like FirstNet, there must be a consistent approach to deployment to accomplish all the features and functionality that NG 911 can provide.” This includes being able to acquire, access and share the multimedia data that callers are capable of sending via their smartphones to 911 dispatch centers.
Are Auction Revenues Enough?
As appealing as allocating spectrum auction revenues to fund Next Gen 911 deployments sounds, it is not the same as providing this upgrade process with assured, consistent, and predictable federal funding. So it could be argued that Rosenworcel’s proposal doesn’t go far enough to resolve this financial problem. After all, if events intervene to forestall FCC spectrum auctions for months or even years – because, as COVID-19 proved, unexpected things happen – the 911 community could find itself in the same funding hole it is currently mired in.
“The most ideal scenario would be a regular form of funding, but not on a state-by-state basis,” said Deputy Police Chief Dowd. “We’ve tried the state model before, and too many times the money doesn’t get to the actual 911 systems. So a federal model, with funds going directly to these agencies, would be the best option – as long as actual 911 operational decisions remain at the local/regional level.”
“Dedicated funds are necessary to move this buildout of NG forward and allow all 911 systems to migrate from legacy 911 to take advantage of newer technology,” Fischer noted. “By funding this at a national level, it will avoid the piecemeal approach to implementation and provide an opportunity for all eligible states, territories, and tribal entities to deploy and create a uniform Next Gen 911 experience for all callers in the U.S. Everyone in this country should have equal access to these enhanced services when they have to call 911 regardless of their location, urban or rural.”