FCC Moving to a Leadership Position on Public Safety and 9-1-1


The FCC is seemingly taking an increasingly active (and welcome) role in 9-1-1 lately.  Their active role in identifying both interim and long term texting to 9-1-1 solutions, yesterday’s announcement on more stringent wireless location accuracy requirements, and Admiral Barnett, Chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau’s recent emphasis statement that “one of the FCC’s primary statutory obligations is to promote the safety of life and property” all demonstrate a refreshingly clear commitment to action on critical public safety issues.

As we move toward NG9-1-1 and the significant impacts that move has across both public safety and the broadly defined telecommunications industry, a growing and more active role by the FCC is welcome and can fill a notable void in any sort of overriding national 9-1-1 coordinating body with authority to force action.  While not able to fund the changes needed to our aging emergency communication system (at least not now), the level of emphasis that the FCC is able to focus on the issues can do nothing but help.

In an effort to foster innovation quickly, I recommend that the following principals be considered:

1) Find a way to address the statutory hurdles to innovation in the 9-1-1 industry.  With any new technology there is inherent risk and there will be bumps in the road.  Unfortunately, in emergency communications bumps can mean a loss of life.  That’s reality in public safety.  Having said that, if we are smart about weighing the risks and benefits we will end up saving many more lives and increasing the level of service to citizens; however, many smaller, innovative companies, which can be shut out of the industry by existing statutes that are very narrow in their definition of what is fund-able and in liability protection.  Existing surcharge funding eligibility definitions needs to change to meet the new technologies associated with NG9-1-1.  Additionally, liability protection afforded traditional 9-1-1 calling technologies needs to be expanded to meet the new forms of communications enabled by NG9-1-1.

2) Interim should always be a step toward the final goal, not an impediment to adoption of the end solution.  I’ve been thinking a lot about interim text-to-9-1-1 options (I have to – it’s part of my job).  Some of the interim options really do provide a nice bridge towards true texting to 9-1-1 as part of NG9-1-1.  Others are more a side-step. Given that it will take a long time to implement any interim solution, and that roll out could very well overlap with pilots of the true NG9-1-1 solution we have to make sure that we don’t have to constantly re-set citizen expectations.  The NG9-1-1 solution envisioned also includes some great thinking about the operational impact of texting on the 9-1-1 center… any interim solution needs to fit as seamlessly as possible into existing processes until the infrastructure exists to implement automation that shields the operational risk to PSAPs.

3) Be wary… very wary of the status quo.  I often hear some of the larger communications service providers lament that 9-1-1 is not a revenue generator for them and as such it is cost prohibitive for them to implement some of the innovations envisioned for our emergency communications system.  I disagree.  Communications devices are first and foremost a safety tool.  Parents buy their 11 year olds mobile phones so that they can have them in an emergency.  If a wireless provider were allowed to launch a new phone that couldn’t call 9-1-1, do you think it would be a big hit?  I can envision the campaign “Great family plans… Now without the ability to call 9-1-1!”.  The reality is that the landscape is not designed to change the status quo.  The existing 9-1-1 system works as designed and advertised.  Change is costly and risky.  The risk/reward equation needs to be changed.  How?  Ensuring a level playing field for all providers is key.  The free market will shake out a model that makes sense – either through cost savings on the provider end, or increases in fees implemented by states or at the national level to buy services from the provider(s) that best meet the demands of their citizens. If the requirements and risks are the same for everyone, companies will find a way to innovate and make money.  Existing Industry Collaboration Events (ICE) managed through NENA are a great way to push innovation.  These events can be expanded and their pace accelerated with more visibility and recognition at the national level.

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