House subcommittee proposes NG911 funding of up to $10 billion
A House subcommittee this week recommended approval of a bipartisan amendment that would provide up to $10 billion to upgrade 911 centers nationwide to next-generation 911 (NG911) technology. under legislation that would see the FCC auction at least 200 MHz of spectrum in the 3.1-3.45 GHz band.
Members of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology voted 29-0 in favor of amended HR 7624, the “Spectrum Innovation Act.” The bill can now be considered by the full House Energy and Commerce Committee. House and Senate approval would be needed for the legislation to be submitted to President Joe Biden for signing into law.
Rep. Frank Pallone (DN.J.) — chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee — voiced support for the changed language during the subcommittee’s markup hearing.
“I am pleased that we have reached an agreement to fund important public programs with auction proceeds required by the Spectrum Innovation Act,” Pallone said. “Next Generation 911 will save lives by giving first responders the information they need to respond to dangerous situations. We need to fund this program. so that all communities have access to these advanced networks.
“We will also fully fund the FCC’s replacement program to ensure our communications networks are not vulnerable.”
Under the Nature of a Surrogate Amendment (AINS) to HR 7624, the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) would have two years to identify at least 200 MHz of the current federal spectrum in Band 3, 1-3.4 GHz which the FCC may auction off as exclusive or shared use radio waves. The FCC would be required to conduct the auction within seven years of the enactment of HR 7624.
Proceeds from the auction would first be used to pay for spectrum incumbents’ relocation costs, with the next $3.4 billion allocated to fund the massive shortfall from the FCC’s “rip and replace” program, designed to rid US commercial networks of “untrusted” equipment – notably, equipment from Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE.
Once those financial obligations are met, the next $10 billion in proceeds from the proposed mid-band auction would go toward funding the NG911 transition at 911 centers across the United States, according to the amended wording. Of course, this $10 billion in funding could only be realized if the auction’s winning bids were large enough to support all of the financial obligations cited in the legislation.
This idea of tying FCC auction revenue to NG911 funding was an idea publicly proposed by FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel in February, a fact Pallone acknowledged during the markup hearing.
While $10 billion would eclipse any past federal funding for 911, Pallone said he plans to seek more.
“Obviously, this $10 billion is a big step forward, … but I will continue to push for additional funding for this technology to save lives at every opportunity,” Pallone said.
“I also wanted to thank FCC Chairman Rosenworcel for her leadership on this issue, because she has really done a lot to pave the way for this goal to be achieved today.”
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a member of Congress’s bipartisan NextGen 911 caucus and a founding member of the caucus 18 years ago, echoed that sentiment.
“This amendment is a new version of the legislation I introduced to last Congress, and it has been refined over the past two years to reach a compromise with Republicans and stakeholders in the first responder community,” Eshoo said during the markup hearing. .
“I agree with the Chairman of the Committee of the Whole [Pallone]. $10 billion is important, but it is estimated that $15 billion will be needed to bring all our  call centers where they belong. I think this major breakthrough will bring us closer to the final stage, so that it is fully funded.
This isn’t the first time funding for Next-Generation 911 has been proposed in legislation, but this bill is unique in that it includes one funding source – auction proceeds – and benefits of such public support from House Republicans.
Rep. Richard Hudson (RN.C.) — like Eshoo, a member of the bipartisan NextGen 911 caucus in Congress — described the 911 system as “an integral part of our nation’s homeland security” and expressed support for the wording of the legislation. modified.
“After more than a year of working with President Eshoo on next generation 911 legislation, I am proud that we have come to an agreement and included our language in this markup,” Hudson said during of the markup audience. “Indeed, I look forward to continuing to work together to pass this life-saving bill into law.”
The inclusion of language for NG911 funding was a pleasant surprise within the public safety community. Indeed, in recent weeks, several public safety and industry sources have privately questioned whether funding for NG911 would be seriously considered ahead of the midterm elections, given the limited legislative timeline and political climate.
But a number of those same sources declined to rule out that possibility, noting that the legislation that created FirstNet was passed just weeks after many public safety advocates were told the measure would not be part of the omnibus bill this year.
This week’s subcommittee markup hearing provided the most encouraging NG911 funding news in months, but several questions remain regarding the modified HR 7624.
The first is whether the legislation can be passed this year, before the end of the session of Congress. The proposed funding for NG911 is part of the legislation calling for an auction of 3.1 to 3.45 GHz, but it is currently not part of the bill that would extend the FCC’s authority to conduct 3.1-3.45 GHz auctions. spectrum – a bill considered “must pass” by most on Capitol Hill. Still, many Beltway sources are heartened that NG911 funding comes with a high-priority component like full funding for the “rip and replace” initiative.
A second problem is the amount of money proposed in the amended law. Noting that public safety officials requested $15 billion for NG911 in March 2021, many wonder if $10 billion is enough to cover the full cost of deploying NG911 nationwide, especially with the integration of cybersecurity efforts and recent inflation trends.
But what is even more important is that funding for NG911 remains at least at the $10 billion level. Last year, public safety saw funding for NG911 in the Build Back Better legislation cut several times to just $500 million before the spending package ultimately failed.
Finally, one of the most notable issues is the timing of any funding for NG911, should this amended legislation be enacted. Under the amended wording, the FCC and NTIA would have two years after enactment to identify suitable spectrum for auction. At this point, the FCC should prepare for the auction and complete it.
Even if all of these steps are executed smoothly, there is a realistic possibility that winning mid-band auction bidders will not deposit checks with the FCC for at least three years, with 911 centers potentially in a state uncertainty during this period. .
A similar situation existed when the FirstNet Authority was created in 2012. Legislative language called for the FirstNet Authority to be funded with $7 billion in spectrum auction proceeds, but that money was not collected until the FCC does not receive the AWS-3 auction money. this was completed in January 2015. In the meantime, the FirstNet Authority has had access to up to $2 billion to support operations until spectrum auction funds are available.
Whether a similar approach could be executed – or even needed – with NG911 funding is debatable. While the FirstNet Authority was a new entity in 2012 and needed money to operate, state and local governments that oversee 911 centers may not need such “seed” funding. . However, proponents of this approach may note that some sort of early funding could allow for initial NG911 deployments that could help inform others who would be running when the program is fully funded.
Even with such issues to be resolved, support for the proposed NG911 funding at the subcommittee markup hearing was voiced by several interested parties, including NENA CEO Brian Fontes.
“NENA appreciates the efforts being made to secure funding for the Next Generation 911 (NG911), and we are willing to work with sponsors and all stakeholders to ensure funding is adequate, feasible and timely,” Fontes said. in a prepared statement. . “The current lack of predictable and reliable federal funding prevents bringing NG911 service to every state, community and tribal territory.”
FCC President Rosenworcel also expressed support.
“As the old saying goes, you can only call 911 once in your life, but it will be the most important call you’ve ever made,” Rosenworcel said in a prepared statement. “Over 600,000 people call 911 every day. Each of these calls should be answered by a call center with full access to digital age technologies. I commend the Communications and Technology Subcommittee for their leadership in upgrading our country’s 911 systems and using the auction of our public airwaves to do so.
“There are more than 6,000 911 call centers across the country and many of them use legacy technology designed for a time when crisis calls came strictly from landlines. We can do better than that. We can use funds from our upcoming spectrum auction to help make next-generation 911 a nationwide reality.
The Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT) has also released a statement of support.
“The Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT) appreciates the efforts of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology to provide funding for Next Generation 911 (NG911 ),” according to the iCERT statement.
“NG911 is essential to the safety and security of our citizens, our communities and our country. iCERT looks forward to continuing to work with the Subcommittee, the Committee of the Whole, and the entire Congress to advance legislation that makes the deployment of NG911 a national priority, so that all citizens have access to these lifesaving technologies. essential.