Cellphones to fund emergency 911 upgrade

March 15, 2016

To fund upgrades to the emergency 911 system in Nebraska, a proposed legislative bill would use the technology demanding the change as a revenue source—cellphones.

“Right now, the current 911 system is based largely on voice technology that was originally developed in the 60s,” said Jeff Pursley, Nebraska Public Service Commission’s executive director. LB 938 “allows the movement of 911 services from voice into Internet protocol, which will encompass voice, data, texting.”

The bill would allow the commission to use money from the Nebraska Enhanced Wireless 911 fund to begin upgrading emergency communications to accept things like text messages and photos. If the 911 Service System Act passes, the Commission would begin a master plan for implementing the new system, due by 2018. The Federal Communications Commission set a 2020 deadline for the states.

“We’re hopeful at this point, even given the lateness of the session, that this bill passes,” Pursley said.

Since 2001, the E911 money has helped counties’ wireless service providers to support cellphones’ emergency calls. The funds were collected from surcharges, currently at $0.45, on wireless lines and can be used to estimate the number of Nebraska cellphones. According to data from the Commission, cellphones outnumbered Nebraskans nearly 10 to 1 in 2015. In that year, the fund’s balance was $8.1 million.

With the huge rise in Nebraska cellphone lines—a 300 percent increase from 2001 to 2015—emergency services have been required to adapt cellphone support, which is classified according to three different phases. In the first level, stations couldn’t pick up important information like the location of the caller or even the cellphone number. The second level provided telephone numbers and location of the wireless tower that received the call. Finally, the third level added specific location via either GPS or cell tower triangulation, using the cell signal strengths from three cell towers to find the phone’s location. By 2012, all Nebraska counties were upgraded to the second level.

“The most important thing is to keep pace with consumers’ expectations of their ability to reach 911 and our ability to provide a robust 911 service,” Pursley said.

According to Jamie Reyes, the Commission’s E911 legal counsel, adding new integrations to the emergency system would allow users to send in pictures of the scene helping operators to forewarn emergency personnel. A comprehensive system could allow emergency vehicles to avoid closed roads. Additionally, texts can be more effective than calls in some emergency situations. Often, overloaded networks block calls, but texts will continue trying to ping the network with a greater possibility of sending.

Although several Nebraska counties have applied for funding to support texting 911, most of the state’s infrastructure requires upgrades for the heavily voice-based system to be data compatible. Only three counties—Douglas, Buffalo and Washington—currently support the texting service.

Nebraska’s neighbor, Iowa, is already next-generation 911 capable. Although the state has fewer cellphones per resident, a surcharge of $1 leads to a 2015 balance of $19.1 million that funded the program.

“This is going to be a very evolving process as communications continue to change, and we need to keep pace with technology,” Pursley said. “We don’t know what the future will bring in 10 years or even 20 years.”

View the data analysis on GitHub.