The multibillion-dollar figure calculated by federal agencies will help Congress advance discussions on building such a communications system over the next decade.
After sitting in limbo for months, an extensive report compiled by federal agencies was published on Friday revealing that a national upgrade to a next generation 911 system would cost between $9.5 billion and $12.7 billion and take 10 years to complete if nothing goes wrong.
Mandated by a 2012 law, the 334-page report provides Congress a starting point to discuss what it would take to deploy the infrastructure for a new generation of emergency response communications systems across the country.
"Next generation 911" is the name given to a class of internet-protocol-based technologies that would enable authorities to transmit images, video, location and other data to and from callers and across emergency call centers, an advancement widely supported in emergency management circles.
The 911 Implementation Coordination Office, led by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, consulted with the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Homeland Security to arrive at several projected cost figures for a national rollout that would be shared across local, state and federal agencies.
In addition to implementation costs outlined in the report, the office identified an ongoing operational and technology refresh cost ranging between $13.5 billion and $16 billion. Federally operated emergency call centers are not included in this estimate.
The report does not break down how the costs would be shared between these entities, though today most 911 systems are funded through state or local 911 telephone service fees. In many regions, however, these fees are controversially redistributed for other government functions unassociated with public safety, and as a result some systems lack adequate funding for upgrades.
Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, said he was pleased to see the report includes financial figures that will allow Congress to take action.
"It's a very important step," Fontes said. "There's been legislation introduced both in the House and the Senate but the legislation did not have a dollar amount associated with it, simply because we were waiting for this report to be submitted."
The report considers three schemes for a national rollout: independent state-by-state implementations; a rollout based on 10 geographical regions defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency; or another that would have states and territories contract with a service provider that would provide all core services and maintenance for the system.
Any of these rollout schemes would disrupt 911's traditional provisioning at the local level, but it would come with the advantage of breaking the implementation into larger chunks. Today, there are an estimated 6,000 911 call centers spread across hundreds of jurisdictions.
Ensuring that next-generation 911 systems are interoperable will be "extremely important," Fontes said. About 80 percent of 911 calls today are made with mobile phones, according to NENA, which means that mobile callers can be routed through several jurisdictions on a single call, which might not necessarily have compatible technology. If next generation 911 is available in one region but not the one next to it, the whole system can break down.
The report warns "there are risks associated with not implementing NG911 or even delaying implementation. A failure to act in a timely, coordinated, and effective manner will result in a variety of negative consequences; NG911 implementation will cost more, take longer, and be less efficient and effective."
In the meantime, Congress might be able to draw some lessons from early adopters. While no public safety jurisdictions have yet deployed a next generation 911 system, many have budgeted for such projects and the first — built by a company called Carbyne — is slated to go live in Fayette County, Georgia, a community of about 110,000 residents just south of Atlanta, later this year.