FCC Takes Step Toward Creating Next-Generation 911 System, Seeks Input

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By Paul Barbagallo  

The Federal Communications Commission has taken a significant step toward modernizing the 911 emergency call system to allow citizens to send text messages, photos, and videos to Public Safety Answering Points, instead of just calling.

In a 4-0 vote at its Sept. 22 open meeting, the FCC decided to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking for public comment on ways to spur deployment of a next-generation 911 system.

The NPRM seeks input on a wide range of issues, the most important of which is how to enable consumers to send texts, photos, and videos to PSAPs.

Broadly, the notice poses the thorny question of how the FCC can, and should, ensure that service providers and PSAPs will be “technologically and operationally capable” to receive texts, photos, and videos.

“In an emergency, consumers should be able to reach out for help with whatever means of communication they are accustomed to using,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “When I visited D.C.'s 911 call center, I asked Director Jennifer Greene about the challenges she faced. She told me that her biggest concern is ‘keeping up with how the community communicates.' For an increasing number of wireless users, that means texting 911 should be available.”

Most critically, the rulemaking explores ways to provide sufficient broadband bandwidth to PSAPs to handle the spike in traffic.

From a practical standpoint, the NPRM asks about any “legal and regulatory barriers” to deployment that might currently exist.

Deployment, Prioritization Questions.

Further, since the technology enabling citizens to send text messages to 911 answering centers will not be simultaneously deployed nationwide, the NPRM notes that citizens may be uncertain where they can, and cannot, text during emergency situations. As such, the NPRM asks how best to educate citizens about the availability of such service capability.

Finally, in light of the Aug. 23 East Coast earthquake, the notice seeks comment on whether, and how, to prioritize 911 call traffic during public emergencies, the time when wireless networks experience the most congestion.

Officials from Verizon Wireless, AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp., and T-Mobile USA reported no major structural damage to cell towers or wires following the magnitude 5.8 temblor centered in Virginia, but with millions of people attempting to call friends, family, and colleagues at the same time, wireless networks in the region were overloaded, resulting in dropped calls and lost signals.

Service was disrupted especially in major cities, such as New York and Washington, but consumers were able to send and receive text messages and e-mail, albeit at slower speeds due to the sudden spike in network traffic.

On this issue, the FCC has already directed the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council to develop recommendations for ensuring that 911 service is available during disaster-triggered calling surges, such as those that occurred in areas affected by the earthquake.

Wary of Big Price Tag.

“Even as we seek ways to reduce the cost of next-generation 911 development and deployment, it is inevitable that upgrades to our 911 system will require funding,” Genachowski noted. “While the FCC is not a grant-making institution, we can provide policymakers with information about the costs associated with deploying the network infrastructure required to link PSAPs and carriers.”

Commissioner Robert McDowell, the senior Republican member of the agency, while expressing support for the overarching goal of the NPRM, urged caution about funding.

“Especially given today's economy, the commission must be careful not to impose costly requirements on industry that would, in turn, require large taxpayer-financed investments by public safety or overhauls of existing emergency communications systems,” McDowell said. “As part of this proceeding, we should examine all potential costs. As we all recognize, today money is either unavailable or tightly managed.”

A cost study released at the agency's meeting concluded that the costs of network connectivity and call routing needed to transition to a simple “baseline model” next-generation 911 system could be $2.68 billion over 10 years. Even a more cost-effective model sets the transition costs at $1.44 billion, the study said.

“What my hope is that this is going to have the same type of effect that our cost model did for the public safety broadband network,” FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Chief Jamie Barnett told reporters following the agency's meeting. “Once the FCC produced its cost model on the [public safety] broadband network, you immediately saw the Hill talk in terms of numbers. We hope that this will spur that kind of conversation amongst federal policymakers and congressional leaders.”

PLAN Initiative in Progress.

Apart from the NPRM, the FCC has been working with the wireless industry to alert Americans about imminent natural disasters in their area via text messages.

The initiative, dubbed the Personalized Localized Alerting Network, or PLAN, will allow emergency officials to send text messages to citizens' mobile phones in regions threatened by earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters.

PLAN formally launched in New York this May with a joint announcement from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fulgate, soon to be followed by a rollout in Washington, D.C. New Yorkers will have access to PLAN by the end of this year; D.C. residents, early next year.

AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel Corp., and T-Mobile USA have all agreed to participate in the project.

By Paul Barbagallo