Where’s the 911 Service? Wireless Phone Bill Surcharges Diverted to Other Purposes

Take a look at your most recent cell phone bill. There should be a line item which reads something like “911 Service Fee,” and while the actual fee varies by county, you’re paying at least $1.20 every month for each cell phone you have. Some counties have been authorized to tack on another 30 cents, bringing the total to $1.50.

That’s a lot of money, especially considering there are over 16 million cellular subscribers in New York, but if it provides location information to an emergency dispatcher — as E-911 works from your home phone — then it sounds like money well spent. Now, what if I tell you that the network to make wireless E-911 work in New York is not completely operable even though the surcharge has been collected for over 15 years and the vast majority of the money raised through the surcharge is diverted for other, completely unrelated projects.

Let’s just hope you don’t need to reach the 911 operator from your cell phone any time soon.

The topic of the monthly 911 surcharge on cell phone bills was brought to life again as a result of an article in the September 21st Syracuse Post-Standard.

According to research conducted by the paper, only six cents of the $1.20 or $1.50 monthly fee ends up at the 911 call center. The rest of the money has been diverted for a variety of purposes, including sun block for state park workers, dry cleaning at the Department of Corrections, and new boots for the State Police. Keep in mind that the purpose of the fee is to upgrade wireless 911 technology so dispatchers can find you when you dial 911. While pinpointing your location may be important when calling 911 from home in situations where you are unable to speak, identifying the caller’s location in a wireless situation is especially critical because often times the caller may not know exactly where he or she is.

Sometimes the fund diversion is even more pronounced, such as when Governor Paterson opted to take $40 million out of the fund on August 20th to help balance the overall state budget. This money was already earmarked from the wireless 911 fund for a statewide wireless network, a $2 billion system intended to connect state police with all emergency officials. After several years, the statewide wireless network remains unbuilt due to problems with the prime contractor, M/A-COM, Inc. The state agency overseeing that project, the Office for Technology, announced on August 29th that it had issued a letter of default to M/A-COM, Inc. for failure to perform. Under the contract awarded to the company to construct the network, M/A-COM has 45 days to remediate remaining problems with the system and recertify the system as ready for use.

Wireless E-911 is a vital service which is in place in several states. A significant amount of money is raised every month for building the network, but not only is it not complete, money is being siphoned off for unrelated purposes and to fix the state budget. What will it take to end this fiasco and provide emergency location access for all wireless New Yorkers?

Lou Manuta

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