CREST argues 911 billing charges taxpayers twice

Phone companies are charging and keeping a levy for every 911 call made from a cellphone.

Taxpayers in the Capital Region are paying twice for 911 emergency phone service, said Gord Logan, the chair of the board of Capital Region Emergency Service Telecommunications (CREST).

CREST handles the 911 calls in the Capital Region for all police, fire, ambulance and emergency services.

Logan isn’t happy that telephone companies are charging and keeping a levy for every 911 call made from a cellphone. According to Logan, that levy is charged by cellphone service providers (such as Telus, Bell, Rogers and others), but unlike landline calls, the telecommunications companies are keeping the levy charged on cellphone calls, rather than passing the funds on to 911 call centres like CREST.

The charge is also higher for cellphone calls.

“They charge about $1.25 for every 911 cell phone call, and I would say that their cost related to taking that call is a tiny fraction of that amount,” Logan said.

In comparison, landline levies are passed along by the telephone companies to 911 call centres to offset the cost of providing that emergency service. When someone with a landline makes a 911 call, the phone company charges a 66-cent levy to the customer, Logan said. Phone companies turn over about 59 cents of that levy to CREST, which in turn uses those funds to offset the charges they pass on to municipalities and others for the call centre.

“The benefit goes not to CREST, but to the municipalities, the RCMP, B.C. Ambulance and others who have to pay for the 911 call centre,” said Logan.

The arrangements and payments of levies for landlines are approved by the CRTC but those arrangements do not apply to wireless devices, said Shawn Hall, a Telus spokesperson. “And there’s very good reasons for that situation. We have our back end costs to cover for wireless services, including the cost of training our own operators to handle 911 calls in areas where there are no public service answering points.”

Hall characterizes CREST’s position as “both sensational and wrong.”

Logan maintains that if the emergency call centres don’t get the benefit of the 911 levies collected for the use of wireless devices, the money to pay for their service has to come from the general tax base. “Those taxpayers, and particularly the actual users of 911– which could be any one of us – end up paying twice.”

Logan maintains that since more than 70 per cent of phone services are now wireless, an estimated $2 million annually is collected from Capital Region cellphone users and kept by cellphone companies for services they don’t provide.

Logan said that the situation could be resolved in one of two ways.

The first would be for the telephone companies to voluntarily pass along all or part of the 911 levies to municipal 911 call centres. It shouldn’t matter if the charges are direct line billing items by cell companies or if they build the levies into a wireless package, said Logan. He says that CREST has had discussions with the telephone companies in an attempt to convince them to voluntarily change their practices. “They’ve resisted,” Logan said. “It’s just a cash grab on their part.”

Hall disagrees. “We have real costs associated with the provision of 911 services,” he said. “First of all, most of our customers don’t actually pay a separate levy for 911 calls any longer, as those fees have been rolled into single payment systems like our ‘clear and simple’ service.” Hall said that while landline levies and the distribution of those funds are approved by the CRTC, wireless charges are not under CRTC jurisdiction.

Hall acknowledges that some portion of the all-inclusive plans may cover the cost of 911 service, but stated emphatically that any charges levied by wireless providers covered the real costs of those companies.

“I can’t speak for all the cell companies, but I know that there are significant costs to operating the system,” he said.

Hall also pointed out that the distribution of levies that are, or could be, charged is difficult when those calls are made from wireless devices.

“We wouldn’t be adverse to a levy being collected on behalf of a provincial system,” said Hall. “Those funds could be allocated on a per capita basis to those municipalities with (911) public service answering points operated by those municipalities.”

Hall said that otherwise there isn’t a way for the wireless providers to know where many of their customers are living or from where they are making the call. “Paying out those fees on a municipal level just isn’t practical,” he said.

A provincially mandated system of levies and payments to 911 service providers is the second option available to Logan and CREST.

“We’ve had discussions with past attorneys general but we’ve gotten nowhere,” said Logan.

Responding to this issue in a written statement, the Minister of Justice, Shirley Bond, said: “In B.C., local governments are responsible for the provision of 911 emergency services. That said, our government continues to review a number of models and the experiences seen in other provinces.”

Bond said that, to date, tax policy restrictions and industry billing practices have meant that there doesn’t appear to be an effective way to change the current model that would work for everyone involved. “For our government to consider any changes, we would need to ensure public safety would be improved, costs would be contained and that we could meet public expectations with regard to both 911 service and funding,” she said.

It’s a review that is long overdue, according to Gord Hoth, CREST general manager. “The UBCM (Union of B.C. Municipalities) passed unanimous resolutions in 2004 and 2009 on this issue, so the government has had eight years to move on this file,” said Hoth. “Surely it could have been addressed by now. They’re allowing this cash grab (by cellphone companies) and it’s not right.”

CREST was established in 1998 and provides emergency communications for 40 emergency response agencies. It is a not-for-profit agency governed by the Emergency Communications Corporations Act. More information on CREST can be found at crest.ca.