The nation’s 9-1-1 system is rooted in the old, switched-circuit telephone system — and it still works fairly well, even in today’s mobile-technology world.
But some, including FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, think it’s past due for an upgrade.
He told Federal News Radio the agency would act as a “spur” to create a new mobile-friendly 9-1-1 system and put in place a national broadband communications network for first responders, which has long been on the drawing board.
And with ever greater numbers of Americans using digital devices and mobile companies building out new networks, the time to act is now, he said.
A changed mobile landscape
“9-1-1 is a great service,” Genachowski said. With the touch of three buttons, help is on the way.
“But the landscape has changed,” he added. “We use communications devices differently now than we did just a few years ago . We’re texting, we’re using our phones to take pictures, to send pictures … And 9-1-1 is not set up to get any communications delivered that way.”
FCC’s solution is a plan called “Next Generation 9-1-1″ and “it means what it says,” he added: An emergency service that “embraces broadband, digital communications technologies to help both ordinary citizens and the public safety officers who are running 9-1-1.”
He acknowledged still a “long way to go,” in part, because every local 9-1-1 call center nationwide will have to be outfitted with broadband technologies. Last week, the FCC unveiled a five-pronged plan to push forward with the Next-Gen plans.
The plan consists of:
Technical standards on digital communications for the new system
Adequate broadband infrastructure for 9-1-1 centers
Location accuracy to make sure the Next-Gen system has accurate location information, which is still a “challenge to be overcome,” Genachowski said.
Funding to pay for the system’s upgrade. “It will cost money to take 9-1-1 from where it is to where it should be,” he said.
A governance framework to manage and integrate emergency services between state and local 9-1-1 authorities and federal agencies.
Analog communications in a broadband world
The other pillar of FCC’s emergency communications plans is a national mobile broadband public-safety network for first responders.
Now, public safety officials are saddled with “old-fashioned” analog phones, Genachowski said. “If a firefighter — before they go into a burning building — wants to download and view floor plans of the building … in a broadband world, it’s not that hard to imagine that that should be possible. It’s not possible today.”
Getting a national mobile broadband public safety network built is a “very high priority” for the FCC, he said, as well as being the subject of recent Congressional activity and a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission set up after the 2001 terror attacks.
Efforts to update emergency communications quickened after 9/11, but actually stretch back some 25 years — all without much to show for it.
But Genachowski said a confluence of factors make the agency’s current efforts more likely to stick now.
“I think that the desire and demand to make this shift has increased very significantly in the last two or three years as people, themselves, switch to next-generation technologies,” he said.
For example, as little as five years ago, the average American was sending only about two text messages per day. Now they send about 20. And smartphone-wielding teenagers, on average, send 100. Even his mother is now texting and sending photos via cell phone, Genachowski added.
In addition, the commissioner pointed to recent congressional activity, such as a recent vote in the Senate Commerce committee that would help fund a national mobile network with voluntary incentive auctions of broadband spectrum
Spectrum auctions would free up arcs of the spectrum, already taxed by the increased use of mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers.
“We have a window now,” he said because commercial companies are building out their own 4G networks, so it would only make sense that federal efforts would dovetail with those.
“We’re heading into a world of a real spectrum crunch and congestion and service for consumers that will not only be unsatisfactory,” he said, “but that will be a drain on our mobile economy — one of the bright spots in our economy.”