FCC Begins Crackdown on 911 Fee Diversion
October 8, 2020 | by Andrew Regitsky
The FCC is attempting to solve a problem few in the industry know about. Each year Americans make over 200 million emergency calls to public safety answering points (PSAPs) that respond to 911 and Enhanced 911 (E911) calls. Obviously, PSAPs must be sufficiently funded to operate efficiently 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.
To ensure that the 911 system provides Americans with the life-saving services they need in times of crisis, PSAPs must be adequately funded so that they can implement modern call handling technology and maintain well-trained personnel. The 911 system also must modernize by migrating from legacy phone network-based 911 technology to advanced, IP-enabled next generation technology (NG911) that supports the services Americans increasingly use to communicate, such as text messaging and streaming video. (Notice of Inquiry, Docket 20-291, released October 2, 2020, at para. 2.).
The principal source of funding for PSAPs are the fees assessed by states on a per-line basis on wireless, wireline, and VoIP services over which 911 calls are made. Service providers collect these fees through monthly subscriber bills, then remit the fees to the state authority assessing the fee. Despite this obvious need for this money, between 2012 and 2018, states and jurisdictions diverted a total of over $1.275 billion in fees collected for 911 and E911 services to non-911 purposes!
The FCC publicly identifies each year the states diverting funds but has had little success in stopping these actions. Having had enough, on October 2, 2020, the Commission released a Notice of Inquiry (Notice) in Docket 20-291 seeking ways in which it could stop 911 fee diversion. Industry comments are due on November 2, 2020.
In particular, we seek comment on restrictions on federal grant funding for states that divert 911 fees, as well as regulatory steps the Commission could take to discourage fee diversion, such as regulation of the description of 911 fees on consumer bills or conditioning state and local eligibility for FCC licenses, programs, or other benefits on the absence of fee diversion. We also seek comment on ways to encourage states to pass legislation or adopt rules that would end 911 fee diversion. In addition, we seek comment on any other means that commenters believe would be helpful in dissuading states from diverting 911 fees, including the potential costs and benefits of any such measures. (Id., para. 16.).
For telephone companies, this issue becomes relevant because the FCC is considering changes to the monthly bills they send to consumers and businesses.
A possible approach for discouraging fee diversion would be for the Commission to require service providers to disclose on their bills that the state or other jurisdiction in which the consumer resides is a 911 fee diverter. Under the Commission’s truth-in-billing rules, telecommunications common carriers must clearly organize consumer bills and must ensure that charges contained on such bills are accompanied by “a brief, clear, non-misleading, plain language description of the service or services rendered.” The diversion of 911 fees may result in inaccurate and misleading bills because consumers are unaware that the fees they are nominally paying for 911 services may actually be diverted to other uses once the state or other jurisdiction receives them. (Id., at para 21.).
The Commission is also considering directing service providers to stop collecting 911 fees for calls in a state diverting funds or to limit 911 fees to the amount that were not diverted in the prior year. It questions whether it has the authority to take such actions. It is also concerned this would make service providers responsible for the actions of third parties such as states over which they have no control.
The issue of 911 fee diversion hurts all of us. Whether PSAPs are having issues modernizing their call-answering networks or even paying and training their personnel. While not directly responsible for directing 911 fees to PSAPs, telephone companies should not divorce themselves from this proceeding. They should work with the FCC to see if their monthly bills can be used as a vehicle to pressure states to responsibly use these fees to support 911 services.