Dialing (911) for Dollars

Federal Emergency Services Plan an Unfunded Mandate

Michigan consumers are forking over millions of dollars annually for more sophisticated 911 services that have yet to materialize. Prescribed by federal regulators six years ago, the enhanced emergency calling system is beset by technical and financial difficulties that demonstrate the pitfalls of unfunded mandates.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1996 first ordered wireless carriers and telecommunications providers to redesign products and revamp networks to enable 911 dispatchers to automatically discern a cellular caller's location and callback number. Communities requesting this "enhanced" 911 service were likewise required to install the equipment necessary to receive locator data.

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The FCC acted with good intentions-to accelerate response times to emergencies reported via wireless calls. Unlike the fixed transmission routes of telephones in homes and offices, the path of a cellular signal, as it moves from tower to tower, depends entirely on the location of the caller. Consequently, 911 dispatchers have no database with which to match a caller to a fixed address. Given the exponential increase in the cellular market-some 46,000 new subscribers daily nationwide-the FCC concluded that federal action was warranted.

But rather than make a case to Congress for the funds necessary to implement the plan, the FCC simply directed states to come up with the cash. The agency's plan thus sidestepped the scrutiny that comes with budgetary competition, foreclosing the chance that more innovative or inexpensive approaches would be considered.

Little wonder, then, that Michigan and a good many other states are in a 911 quandary. 

In response to the FCC order, the Michigan Legislature in 1999 enacted a 55-cent monthly "fee" on cellular subscribers to fund enhanced 911 services. But lacking any real basis on which to judge costs-the plan having been devised by Washington-state lawmakers guessed wrong. Thus, taxpayers are forfeiting millions of dollars but getting little in return.

As of August 2001, the latest data available, more than $52 million has been collected for enhanced 911 services. But of the 83 counties in Michigan that are sharing the fee revenue, only 21 have even partially implemented the first phase of the enhanced 911 program-while the second phase should now be underway, according to the FCC schedule.

Reporting to the Legislature last August, the state's Emergency Telephone Service Committee acknowledged that a "significant" number of 911 service centers are unprepared to implement the FCC order. "Few county personnel have a detailed understanding" of wireless 911, the committee report states.

Michigan is hardly an exception. Testifying in October 2001, FCC official Thomas J. Sugrue testified to Congress of his agency's "disappointment that the process of making wireless (enhanced) 911 a reality is not further along."

In the meantime, local governments are stockpiling the tax revenue. The city of Detroit, for example, has reported receipts of $790,653, but no costs or expenditures. Macomb County has $680,487 on hand, while Ingham County reports $302,740. Likewise, Kalamazoo County reported $255,280 in receipts, Livingston County $167,062, Calhoun County $180,000 and Genesee County $425,876. 

Several other counties do report some spending-on salaries, training and the hiring of dispatchers to handle existing cell-call volume. (New uniforms are also among the expenditures reported.)

Despite the dearth of progress, there's already talk of increasing and extending the tax. At the same time, however, county officials are working to block a plan by telecommunications companies to recoup their share of the program costs.

Specifically at issue are plans by SBC-Ameritech and other service providers to charge 911 dispatch agencies a "transaction" fee to transmit each emergency call. Currently, the 911 agencies contract with the companies for a fixed fee to maintain a database of wire line telephone numbers and addresses for use in handling 911 calls. But as explained earlier, wireless transmissions require the telephone companies to provide unique location data every time a 911 call is handled. And depending on a caller's location, a single call may have to be transmitted multiple times before ever reaching the appropriate rescue agency.

The FCC has ruled that 911 dispatch agencies are, in fact, responsible for paying these transaction costs. But local governments are lobbying the state Public Service Commission to disallow any such charges. In recent days, front-page headlines have warned that 911 transaction fees would "bankrupt" 911 agencies.

That's hardly the case. And while it is predictable that local officials would scramble to avoid the hefty costs of enhanced 911, telecom service providers should not be held liable for Washington's costly edicts. Telephone service is not an entitlement, and to force the industry to subsidize government mandates is an invitation to regulatory tyranny.

Rather than attack telecom companies for attempting to protect shareholders, local officials would do better to demand that the Legislature and the feds pay up or scrap the grand scheme.

To what extent enhanced 911 services are even needed is open to question. There is little empirical data on how often 911 dispatchers are unable to obtain location information from cellular callers, or how often the information proffered proves inaccurate. A limited (unscientific) test by the state of Montana found that 81 percent of cellular callers could provide location information, while 71 percent could provide a callback number.

Such figures might indicate a need for some form of location technology. But it must also be noted that a single accident often prompts dozens of cellular calls to 911 from drive-by "witnesses" who have little actual information of any sort to offer. And, in fact, some data indicate that a substantial number of cellular calls to 911 are unintended, the result of automatic dialing that has been accidentally activated.

It is worth noting that automakers increasingly are offering onboard positioning devices to facilitate roadside assistance. And in the absence of government action, insurers as well as wireless carriers might very well seize the opportunity to market emergency relays to local 911 agencies. Allowing the private sector to test a variety of methods would help to ensure that the most reliable and cost-effective technology would win out.

What we have instead is a centralized government plan that wrests control of 911 services from the local officials who are most accountable to citizens; a plan that balloons local, state, and federal bureaucracies and inflates costs; a plan that fails to deliver the very benefits promised by Washington regulators. An unfunded federal mandate, in other words.

"Rather than attack telecom companies for attempting to protect shareholders, local officials would do better to demand that the Legislature and the feds pay up or scrap the grand 911 scheme."