9-1-1 Fee Diversion Task Force Delivers Report to Congress, FCC
Tuesday, September 21, 2021 | Comments
The Ending 9-1-1 Fee Diversion Now Strike Force delivered its report on how to end 9-1-1 fee diversion to the FCC and Congress.

At the end of last year, Congress passed a coronavirus relief package that included a provision directing the FCC to establish the task force, which was tasked with examining multiple sides of the issue and delivering a report to the FCC and Congress.

“We all have confidence that our work will have meaning and lasting impact, and will result in improving and enhancing 9-1-1 communications now and in the future,” said Strike Force Chair Kelli Merriweather during the group’s September 17 meeting.

Strike Force Vice Chair Steven Sharpe highlighted the report’s key findings and conclusions during the meeting.

First among those conclusions was that 9-1-1 fee diversion negatively impacts public safety, 9-1-1 operations and fiscal sustainability of 9-1-1 services.

“I don’t think that was hard for anyone to come to,” Sharpe said. “In fact, it was the reason this group was formed. What’s important to realize is that when we compel people to turn over revenue for a certain purpose, we need to use that revenue for the purpose we told them we were taking their revenue for.”

Next, the strike force concluded that 9-1-1 fee receipts and expenditures should be distinguishable and auditable to ensure that the fees are used directly for the provision of 9-1-1 services. As part of its report, the strike force offered approved eligible uses for 9-1-1 fees and developed a new definition of 9-1-1 expenditures, which was another of the strike force’s key findings.

Under that new allowable use definition, 9-1-1 fees can be used for “any communications system, technology or support action” that directly provides the ability to deliver 9-1-1 voice and data information from the 9-1-1 entry point to the 9-1-1 system and the first responder, said Budge Currier, chairman of the strike force’s Working Group 1.

Those allowable uses can include things such as LMR radio systems as long as that system plays a role in either connecting a caller to 9-1-1 or in transmitting information from the 9-1-1 center to a first responder, Currier said.

Additionally, Currier said, while the report defines eligible uses of 9-1-1 fee diversion, state and local agencies can adopt guidelines that are more restrictive than the report but cannot adopt guidelines that are less restrictive.

“The federal guidelines provide the minimum eligible use of 9-1-1 fees,” he said.

The strike force’s next major finding was that because 9-1-1 systems require significant capital and recurring investments to meet their mission demands, there needs to be greater access to funding with prohibitions against 9-1-1 fee diversion.

“If the penalty is less than what is diverted, diversion is unlikely to end,” Sharpe said.

Building off that conclusion, the strike force found that ending 9-1-1 fee diversion requires direct enforcement action by the FCC. These potential enforcement actions could include fines, licensing enforcement actions and criminal referrals, but more study is needed.

“One of the things that the strike force would like to caution the FCC and Congress on is we need further study to understand what potential impact those actions would have on public safety,” Sharpe said. “We do need to have enforcement action to end 9-1-1 fee diversion. What that enforcement action looks like is something that we need to evaluate very closely.”

Working Group 1 recommended that any FCC license applicant diverting 9-1-1 fees should not be eligible for public-safety spectrum renewals, modifications or new licenses until it has a remediation plan approved by the FCC, Currier said.

However, the working group noted that the process for organizations should be a progressive process where its licenses should not be instantly impacted. Instead, those organizations would have time to receive notifications and take actions before experiencing any impacts to its license.

“So, it’s not an immediate impact, but we do think it is an important part of the enforcement process,” Currier said.

The strike force’s Working Group 2 recommended that the enforcement process be an escalating process that would begin with a fine and then move on to subsequent actions such as licensing impacts or criminal penalties, said Richard Bradford, chair of the working group.

Bradford said that the group determined that some form of criminal penalty could help in preventing diversion of 9-1-1 fees. However, he said that any criminal penalty should be fines or forfeitures and should be directed toward jurisdictions and not individuals such as public officials or legislators.

“There was a lot of discussion in our group that identifying public officials as having criminal intent may create additional challenges to end fee diversion,” Bradford said.

Next, the strike force recommended that the FCC requires additional authority to ensure that local agencies are providing information to states for the FCC’s annual report to Congress. The group also found that the FCC’s methodology for collecting information for its annual fee diversion report may need to be readjusted.

“We don’t know how deep or little the problem is until we have better data from local and state agencies regarding fee diversion,” Sharpe said.

Finally, the strike force concluded that state entities should not be punished for fee diversion by local entities and vice versa. Currently, the FCC’s report and order on 9-1-1 fee diversion makes states responsible for local agencies diverting 9-1-1 fee diversion and federal grant guidance holds local agencies accountable for state diversion.

The recommendations would decouple this and make each entity accountable for its own actions.

“We believe that states should not be punished for locals, and locals should not be punished for states,” said Sharpe.

The FCC and will publish the strike force’s report on the FCC’s website September 23.

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