FCC Proposes Rules to Regulate 911 Fee Diversion

By: Andrew Regitsky

One of the few issues uniting the industry is the importance of 911 and Enhanced 911 service.  Yet for years states have diverted the fees telecoms collect from the public to pay for 911 upkeep and improvements and use them instead as general funds or for network improvements unrelated to public safety.  Some states have typically diverted more than 5 percent of 911 fees to meet other needs or concerns.  

Alerted to this issue in 2004, seventeen years later, Congress finally had enough.  On December 27, 2020, the Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act (T-Band Act) of 2020 was passed and became law.  The T-Band Act requires the FCC to develop rules within 180 days and issue final rules to address 911 fee diversion by states and other taxing jurisdictions (such as Indian Tribes) for purposes unrelated to 911.  In response, at its upcoming February 17 meeting, the Commission will release a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in Docket 20-291 seeking industry comments on proposed rules to stop this state practice.   Comments are due 20 days after the NPRM appears in the Federal Register.

In the NPRM the Commission makes the following proposals for which it seeks comments:

The FCC proposes rules that define the types of expenditures of 911 fees by states and taxing jurisdictions that are acceptable under the Act and the types of expenditures that constitute 911 fee diversion.  Under the proposed rules, 911 funds can be used only for (1) support and implementation of 911 services provided by or in the state or taxing jurisdiction imposing the fee or charge, and (2) operational expenses of Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) within such state or taxing jurisdiction.  Proposed acceptable uses include:

(1) PSAP operating costs, including lease, purchase, maintenance, and upgrade of customer premises equipment (CPE) (hardware and software), computer aided dispatch (CAD) equipment (hardware and software), and the PSAP building/facility; 

(2) PSAP personnel costs, including telecommunicators’ salaries and training; 

(3) PSAP administration, including costs for administration of 911 services and travel expenses associated with the provision of 911 services; 

(4) Integrating public safety/first responder dispatch and 911 systems, including lease, purchase, maintenance, and upgrade of CAD hardware and software to support integrated 911 and public safety dispatch operations; and

(5) Providing for the interoperability of 911 systems with one another and with public safety/first responder radio systems.

Proposed unacceptable uses of 911 funds include:

(1) Transfer of 911 fees into a state or other jurisdiction’s general fund or other fund for non-911 purposes; 

(2) Equipment or infrastructure for constructing or expanding non-public safety communications networks (e.g., commercial cellular networks); and 

(3) Equipment or infrastructure for law enforcement, firefighters, and other public safety/first responder entities, including public safety radio equipment and infrastructure, that does not have a direct impact on the ability of a PSAP to receive or respond to 911 calls or to dispatch emergency responders.

Next, the Commission proposes rules that would allow states and taxing jurisdictions to petition the Commission for a determination that expenditures of 911 fees not previously designated as acceptable by the Commission should be treated as acceptable under the Act.  To have the petition accepted, the petitioner must demonstrate that its fee diversion (1) supports public safety answering point functions or operations, or (2) has a direct impact on the ability of a public safety answering point to receive or respond to 911 calls or to “dispatch emergency responders.

The Commission proposes a rule providing that any state or taxing jurisdiction identified as a 911 fee diverter in its annual 911 fee report to Congress is ineligible to serve on any FCC committee, panel, or council established to advise the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) or any advisory committee. 

Lastly, the agency proposes a rule providing that if a state or taxing jurisdiction receives a federal 911 grant, as a condition of the grant it must provide information that the Commission requires in order to prepare the annual 911 fee report to Congress.

Congress and the FCC have attempted to address 911 fee diversion for years. Unfortunately, we continue to hear horror stories about unanswered 911 calls or long waits for responses.  It is high time that this necessary service is more tightly controlled with all fees accounted for.