Taxpayers in Greater Victoria are being double billed for 911 emergency phone service, says the public agency that oversees emergency communication in the region.
Telecommunications companies are charging a levy for every 911 call made from a cellphone, but that money isn’t being remitted to support the public 911 system, says Gordie Logan, board chair of Capital Region Emergency Service Telecommunications (CREST).
CREST handles the 911 calls in the Capital Region for all police, fire, ambulance and other emergency services.
Logan said that cellphone levy is charged by providers (such as Telus, Bell, Rogers and others), but unlike landline calls, the telecommunications companies are keeping the fee.
“They charge about $1.25 for every 911 cellphone 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 operating costs passed on to municipalities.
“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 maintained that if the emergency call centres don’t get the benefit of the 911 levies collected for the use of wireless devices, the money 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 said 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 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. Logan said 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.”
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,” Hall said. “Those funds could be allocated on a per capita basis to those municipalities with (911) public service answering points operated by those municipalities.”
Responding to this issue in a written statement, Justice Minister Shirley Bond 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.
A government review that is long overdue, said Gord Hoth, CREST general manager.
“The (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.”