THE BLOG
06/22/2010 10:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

FCC Broadband Plan Calls For Next Generation 9-1-1

An 11-year-old girl is kidnapped by a stranger walking home from school in Queens, NY. She doesn't know what's going on, why she was snatched or where she is going but she has one chance to get a message out. She's smart enough to know that sending a text to her parents or a friend may get action but it might be precious minutes or hours before someone can react and get the police involved. Plus, she has only a few minutes alone with her cell phone to send out a silent text -- a cry for help.

She remembers from a school program that she can now send a text message to 911: HELP ME PLS. I WAS TAKEN BY A STRANGER.

The 911 operator quickly responds: DO NOT PANIC. DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE? WHO ARE YOU WITH?

IDK WHO IT IS. IN BACKSEAT OF A CAR. LYING DOWN.

WHAT DO YOU SEE?

A BRIDGE. I HEAR CAR HORNS. SMELLS YUCKY. LIKE FISH.

WE'RE GETTING YOUR LOCATION ON GPS. DON'T WORRY. WE WILL FIND U. STAY ON THE LINE AS LONG AS U CAN. OK?

K.

WHAT IS YOUR NAME?

CARLY.

LAST NAME?

SMITH.

WHERE DO YOU LIVE?

QUEENS.

WHAT IS YOUR HOME PHONE NUMBER?

718-555-5555. MY MOM'S CELL PHONE NUMBER IS 914-555-5555. PLS CALL HER. I'M SCARED. WHAT ARE THEY DOING WITH ME?

WE WILL. DO NOT WORRY. JUST HOLD ON. WE WILL BE COMING FOR YOU. I PROMISE.

Think this sounds too much like a blockbuster thriller to be real? Think again.

In the FCC's National Broadband Plan, there is a proposal to create a Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) system that will enable police to accept and reply with all sorts of communication modes. The report already cites an Iowa 911 call center that has become the first to accept text messages.

From the FCC report:

An emergency call center in Black Hawk County, Iowa, became the first in the nation to accept text messages sent to "911" in August 2009. "I think there's a need to get out front and get this technology available," Black Hawk County police chief Thomas Jennings told the Associated Press. Black Hawk County's system is designed so people with speech and hearing impediments can text 911 for emergency services. It eliminates the cumbersome process of having a deaf person using a keyboard to write a message, which is then delivered via a relay center to the operator answering the call. An added advantage is that 911 operators can text back.

While voice communication is still the primary method for 911 communications, this new wave of Next Generation 911 capability is just one example of the way the nation is modernizing its 911 system to better serve the public.

What is NG911?

Right now, the country's 911 system is vital to public safety. But it's a system that, with a few modern improvements, has remained virtually unchanged since its inception in 1968 (adapted from an idea generated by the Canadian city of Winnipeg) when AT&T designated a nationwide standard emergency service number. In the Broadband Plan released this year, the FCC says it is vital that a new 911 system with dramatically increased capabilities be deployed as a part of it's overall set of recommendations to upgrade and extend the country's broadband network.

"Broadband can also make 911 and emergency alert systems more capable, allowing for better protection of lives and property," the report says. "For example, with broadband, 911 call centers (also known as public safety answering points or PSAPs) could receive text, pictures and videos from the public and relay them to first responders."

At the base of NG911 are some fundamentals. First is to keep in place the Enhanced 911 capabilities that have already been put in place such as automatic location information and automatic number identification. Next is to add the ability to allow people to access 911 in multiple formats. The plan also calls for the NG911 system to be more flexible and efficient as well as be able to interoperate with other agencies beyond the basic PSAP.

This means that a caller can text for help or even take a digital photo and send it to 911 operators to help police in locating a crime in progress or to provide important medical details to emergency service workers en route. Video streaming has potential that is endless when it comes to emergency response. Additionally, the NG911 system should be able to be standard across every PSAP in the nation allowing for fluid communication from everywhere from everyone using every available means of communication, including VOIP.

How to get there from here: FCC recommendations.

The agency makes a number of recommendations on how to get from legacy 911 to a nationwide, integrated NG911 system based on broadband service.

In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has already published a plan for NG911 and some law enforcement agencies have begun deploying it. As seen in the Idaho police department example, receiving text based 911 calls is already being tested. The DOT plan developed in mid-2008 estimated the cost to be about $85 billion over 20 years to build and operate a nationwide NG911 system.

The FCC says this estimate is not detailed enough to guide Congress to develop a grant. The Broadband Plan recommends that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) prepare a report identifying costs of deploying a nationwide NG911 system and for Congress to prove public funding to do so (Recommendation 16.13).

Included in the NHTSA report would be technical analysis and a cost study for various delivery methods including wired, wireless and satellite. One thing the FCC stresses is that the report include the needs of persons with disabilities and how NG911 can help serve those needs with new technology.

Obstacles to overcome.

Big problems do remain. One is that many rural areas do not have access to broadband. The FCC states that a more efficient transition needs to be developed to support these services. Existing regulation will also be a hindrance to NG911 roll out nationwide.

"Inconsistent, overlapping and outdated state and federal regulations have slowed NG911 development," the FCC says in the Broadband Plan.

In recommendation 16.14 the FCC suggests that Congress enact a federal NG911 regulatory framework:

Federal and state regulations that focus on legacy 911 systems have hampered NG911 deployment. Many rules were written when the technological capabilities of NG911 did not exist. Congress should consider establishing a federal legal and regulatory framework for development of NG911 and the transition from legacy 911 to NG911 networks. This framework should remove jurisdictional barriers and inconsistent legacy regulations and provide legal mechanisms to ensure efficient and accurate transmission of 911 caller information.

Lastly, there are financial barriers to getting NG911 operational. Current grant programs to implement NG911 are not cohesive and have been much more limited in scope than the FCC would like.

"It is critical that the NG911 system is developed in a way that most effectively ensures Americans can access 911 systems anytime and anyplace," the report concludes.