GAO Criticizes FCC 9-1-1 Report, NENA Criticizes GAO Research (4/19/13)
Friday, April 19, 2013 | Comments

States have made significant progress implementing wireless enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) since 2003, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) said that nearly 98 percent of 9-1-1 call centers, known as public-safety answering points (PSAPs), are capable of receiving Phase I location information, and 97 percent have implemented Phase II for at least one wireless carrier. This represents a significant improvement since 2003 when implementation of Phase I was 65 percent and Phase II was 18 percent. According to NENA's current data, 142 U.S. counties (representing roughly 3 percent of the U.S. population) do not have some level of wireless E9-1-1 service. The areas that lack wireless E9-1-1 are primarily rural and tribal areas that face special implementation challenges, according to federal and association officials.

Wireless E9-1-1 deployment usually proceeds through two phases. Phase I provides general caller location information by identifying the cell tower or cell site that is receiving the wireless call, and Phase II provides more precise caller-location information, usually within 50 to 300 meters.

According to data collected by the FCC, all 50 states and the District of Columbia reported collecting — or authorizing local entities to collect — funds for wireless E9-1-1 implementation, and most states reported using these funds for their intended purpose. (link to) Six states — Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, New York and Rhode Island — reported using a total of almost $77 million of funds collected for 9-1-1 implementation for other purposes during 2011. Using funds in this way is permissible by state law in these states, but it creates the risk of undermining the credibility of 9-1-1 fees in those states.

The manner in which FCC collects and reports information on state 9-1-1 funds limits the usefulness of its annual report, the GAO said. In particular, contrary to best practices for collecting and analyzing data, FCC uses only open-ended questions to solicit information from states, lacks written guidelines for interpreting states' responses and ensuring that results can be reproduced, and doesn’t describe the methodology used to analyze the data it collects. As a result, FCC is missing an opportunity to analyze trends and to provide more detailed aggregated information that would be useful to decision makers.

The report suggested that the FCC should follow best practices for data collection and analysis to improve its current method of collecting and reporting information on state 9-1-1 funds. In response, FCC concurred with GAO's recommendation and agreed to take action to address it.

In a statement, NENA said it is pleased that another element of the Next-Generation 9-1-1 Advancement Act of 2012 has been completed, and that the GAO devoted time and effort to preparing its report.

“However, the report is in some ways a missed opportunity,” NENA CEO Brian Fontes said. “NENA had hoped that the act would prompt a detailed look at primary-source materials on 9-1-1 fee collection by the states, and whether those fees are actually spent to further the deployment, operation, maintenance and improvement of 9-1-1 services. However, the GAO did not conduct any review of publicly available state revenue and appropriations data to determine whether the data that is self-reported by the states is accurate.”

NENA said that the GAO report dwells on methodological problems with the FCC’s existing data collection regime, while basing almost all of its own findings on that very data set. NENA also criticized GAO for researching subjects such as E9-1-1 wireless location capabilities that have already been comprehensively studied by NENA and others, and for which data was already publicly available.

“Despite our misgivings about the report’s scope and methodology, NENA is pleased that the information assembled by GAO will be made available to lawmakers and the public in a convenient and high-profile format,” Fontes said. “We call on the Congress to scrutinize the report and continue to seek more illuminating data.”

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