Wisconsin Geospatial News

Local geographic data funding receives boost

Thanks to a recent decision from the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC), funding for local geographic data creation will receive a boost of nearly $7 million over the next three years. The funding is part of a large grant program administered by the PSC to pay for the technologies used by emergency dispatchers to locate wireless phone users calling 911.

The $7 million will reimburse 68 of the state’s 72 counties for some of the costs of acquiring geographic data such as digital orthophotos, the mapping of street centerlines and addresses, emergency and administrative boundaries, trail locations, and land ownership parcels, along with hardware and software to store and display the data. This geographic information, incorporated into a 911 response system, will aid emergency dispatchers in locating calls from wireless phones, and help the dispatchers direct emergency responders to the correct location.  

Wireless E-911 law signed two years ago

The system to pinpoint the location of cellular calls is referred to as wireless Enhanced 911.  A priority of the Federal Communications Commission for some time, the technology to establish wireless E-911 is already implemented in many states.

The state legislature and governor approved a bill in 2003 to provide the means to establish wireless E-911 in Wisconsin. The 2003 act authorized the PSC to create a Wireless 911 fund to reimburse providers (communications companies) and local governments (generally counties) for the costs associated with creating and maintaining wireless E-911 services. According to the law, funding for wireless E-911 will come from a monthly surcharge on all wireless bills. Currently, there are nearly 3 million billed cell numbers in Wisconsin.  On December 1 the PSC set the monthly surcharge, scheduled to end in November 2008, at 83 cents.

The wireless E-911 program is divided into two parts – Phase I and Phase II.  Phase I requires carriers, in cooperation with a local Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), to report the telephone number of a wireless 911 caller, and the location of the antenna that received the call. Phase II requires wireless carriers to provide coordinates within 50 to 300 meters of the caller’s location.

Establishing E-911 requires new technologies and upgrades to local PSAPs, as well as coordination among public safety agencies, providers, equipment manufacturers, wireless companies, and data creators and maintainers. The 2003 Wisconsin law contained a wide variety of provisions, among them the option that local governments operating a PSAP could include in a grant application the costs of collecting and maintaining data needed to identify and locate the caller.

Data a critical component of successful E-911 operation

The 2003 law recognized that geographic data was, in many instances, the same data local governments were collecting and using as part of the Wisconsin Land Information Program (WLIP). With this in mind, the law specified that if a county requested grant funds for the collection and maintenance of data, these activities had to be consistent with the county’s existing land records modernization plan, conform to standards on which the plan is based, and not duplicate any efforts funded through the WLIP.

Sixty-eight counties submitted wireless E-911 grant applications to the PSC requesting approximately $39.4 million; $29.2 million was approved. Of the $29.2 million, approximately $7 million is itemized for the collection and maintenance of geographic data. To insure that counties are not compensated twice for the same products, final approval of grant awards are contingent on county submission (by January 17, 2006) of details showing what if any retained land information fees may have been used pay for data that was included in the wireless E-911 grant application. Out of the approximately $7 million tentatively awarded to counties, $2.6 million will fund digital orthophotos, and $3.8 million to other critical data elements such as the mapping of street centerline alignments, addresses, trails and administrative boundaries.

Currently only a few Wisconsin counties have systems in place to accurately identify the location of wireless callers. Although funding will begin soon, implementation of the full capability is many months away, and in the far northern reaches of the state where cellular towers are sparse, the use of this technology may be years away.

The PSC decision document for county grant awards (198 pages with itemized details for each county) can be viewed on the PSC Web site.  Click on the Electronic Regulatory Filling (ERF) link, then click on Search ERF and fill in the document number (44910) in the appropriate box.