FCC’s O’Rielly Calls Out States for Diverting 911 Funds


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FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly has no patience with states that divert their 911 fees for other uses. He slammed the practice Tuesday during a speech before the Rhode Island E911 Summit in Providence. His colleagues Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Chairman Ajit Pai have criticized the practice as well.

O’Rielly called it “appalling” that some states use the fees consumers pay on their phone bills that are supposed to be for 911, for “tangential or unrelated” purposes. He asked what conditions in Rhode Island make fee diversion a viable option for policymakers. “With a state budget of $9.3 billion, why is it necessary to divert a rather small amount – between $8 to $10 million – dedicated for public safety call centers and the 911 system to other spending priorities?”  

The FCC is looking into and reporting the issue – a sort of “name and shame” system, he said. Over the last nine years, 21 states and one territory have self-reported diverting 911 funds to other purposes for one year or more. Collectively, 31 states, territories or districts have either diverted funds or failed to timely report to the Commission. The FCC’s 2017 report showed that five states diverted almost $130 million intended for 911 funding and another seven states and territories failed to submit information.

He called out Rhode Island specifically, noting that it is the second largest diverting state in terms of overall amount and percentage, behind only New Jersey. Rhode Island diverted 60 percent of the 911 fees it collected, or more than $8 million, according to the agency’s 2017 report.

“Some states and territories will try to make the argument that their diversion should not count because they spent the diverted monies on other ‘public safety’ purposes. But that is not acceptable, said O’Rielly. “Beyond the enormous deception being perpetrated, it’s highly likely that the public safety systems are not receiving the funding that they need to operate or migrate to next generation, or NG911, systems. Underfunding has led to longer wait times, delayed emergency responses, worker fatigue and lower morale, and an inability to invest in new systems, he added.

Switching to potential solutions, he suggested defining what features and functions can be recouped via a state 911 fund. He also urged using the agency’s Truth in Billing oversight, preventing telecoms from collecting 911 fees if they are diverting and, therefore, remitting to a state any more funding than is necessary to operate the state’s 911 obligations. Combining these two features would be a way to effectuate change without impinging upon the funding desperately needed by 911 call centers, according to the Commissioner.

March 21, 2018                      

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