Congress mulls more help for wireless E911

Lack of money and coordination is delaying full implementation of wireless E911, which gives dispatchers the locations of emergency callers on cell phones.

The General Accounting Office has found that wireless E911 is several years away in many states, raising the prospect of piecemeal availability across the country for an indefinite period.

The Federal Communications Commission has estimated as many as one-third of 911 calls come from cell phones. But according to the Transportation Department, only 18 percent of public safety answering points have equipment that can accurately locate the callers.

Funds diverted
Several bills introduced last year in the Senate and House would give matching grants to state and local governments for E911. The bills also would require states to stop spending money raised for E911 for other purposes and to coordinate their actions with telecommunications carriers and equipment manufacturers.

Wireless E911 requires cooperation among cellular carriers, wireline carriers and answering points. FCC has ordered wireless carriers to provide E911 capability, but it has no authority over the answering points of state and local agencies.

In the first phase of E911, wireless carriers must give answering points the cell sites and sectors where wireless 911 calls originated. In the second phase, carriers must be able to map the locations for dispatchers. That deadline differs depending on the carrier and the technology in use, but all carriers must offer it by 2006.

Even after carriers make the service available, answering points will have to upgrade their systems to take advantage of it.

According to a Transportation Department database cited by GAO, 65 percent of public safety answering points had first-phase wireless E911 service last month, but only 18 percent had second-phase service.

Twenty-four states told GAO they plan to implement it by 2005, but the rest put it beyond 2005 or could not estimate a date.

The second-phase service would cost about $8 billion over the next five years. 'Lack of state or local funding is the largest factor affecting the progress of wireless E911,' GAO reported.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have imposed cellular surcharges to pay for E911 upgrades, but much of that money is being diverted. GAO found 13 states and the District of Columbia had spent wireless E911 funds for unrelated purposes, and nine other states had attempted to do so.

One state reported diverting more than $40 million in E911 funds and said another $25 million would be taken in 2004. Another state's legislature froze E911 funds.

Congress wants states to certify that E911 fees are not being diverted in order to qualify for the federal matching grants, which would cover no more than 50 percent of the cost. Various pieces of legislation would provide $100 million to $500 million per year for certain amounts of time.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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