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CU Supports Improving 911 Service For Cell Phone Users

September 22, 2003
Dear Representative:
I am writing on behalf of Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, to express strong support for H.R. 2898, the E-911 Implementation Act of 2003. H.R. 2898, which is scheduled for markup tomorrow by the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, was introduced by Representatives Shimkus and Eshoo, and has broad bipartisan support. Similar legislation has already been reported to the full Senate by the Senate Commerce Committee and is awaiting floor consideration.
Consumers need to know that in an emergency they can dial 911 and get immediate assistance. Unfortunately, for far too many wireless phone users that may not be the case. A recent survey of 11,500 ConsumerReports.org subscribers found that of the 1,880 who had recently tried to make a 911 call on their cell phones, 15 percent had trouble connecting, including 4 percent who never got through at all. In addition, only about 10 percent of all Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) nationwide – where 911 calls are answered – have the capability of accurately pinpointing the location of a cell phone user who calls 911. That’s astounding – and unacceptable.
Something needs to be done to rectify this situation. Given that 56 million, or 28 percent, of all 911 calls are now made from cell phones, enhanced 911 (E-911) services that allow PSAPs to identify the name, telephone number and location of a cell phone caller in an emergency are a public safety necessity. PSAPs will not be able to move forward with implementation of these so-called phase II E-911 services without being provided adequate resources to make crucial infrastructure upgrades and properly train personnel. H.R. 2898 would begin to provide the necessary funding.
The bill would create a grant program to provide matching funds to state and local governments and tribal organizations for planning, infrastructure improvements, telecommunications equipment purchases and personnel training for implementation of phase II E-911 services. These grants – up to $100 million per year through 2008 – would be administered through the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which would also create an E-911 Implementation Coordination Office to further assist grant recipients and other public safety organizations with E-911 implementation.
H.R. 2898 would also make it more likely that taxes and fees collected by states for E-911 implementation would actually be used for that purpose. Over 40 states have implemented some form of E-911 tax, collecting as much as $2 per month from every wireless phone user. Amazingly, many states divert these funds to other uses, including to satisfy general state obligations, while at the same time under-funding E-911 implementation. The bill would require states to certify annually to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) that E-911 taxes, fees and charges are being used for their designated purposes. If states can’t make this certification, they can’t receive E-911 implementation grants. Moreover, if the FCC doesn’t receive the certification, it is required to report in the Federal Register, and to Congress, which states didn’t meet this obligation and how much money is being diverted away from E-911 implementation.
Cell phone users have a right to know that taxes and fees collected from them for E-911 implementation are being used for E-911 implementation. H.R. 2898’s “naming and shaming” scheme provides a fair carrot and stick approach that should encourage states to move forward with E-911 implementation. It should also help put a stop to carriers simply pointing the finger at PSAPs for the slow rollout of E-911 services, and may encourage them to be more helpful in moving the implementation process along.
Just as the states will be held accountable for how they are using E-911 fees, we believe that carriers should be as well. Consumers Union would like to see audits of the carriers’ use of E-911 fees. Some carriers appear to be double charging consumers for E-911 fees by breaking out a separate E-911 line item and then charging consumers again for E-911 in bundled “regulatory charges.” While this legislation will not address this issue, it is important that Congress recognize that the problems of E-911 implementation cannot all be laid at the doorstep of states and localities. Carriers must bear their share of the responsibility as well.
For these reasons, we urge you to support H.R. 2898 and report it favorably out of the Subcommittee. We also look forward to working with you to bring this important public safety legislation to the House floor as soon as possible.
Adam J. Goldberg
Policy Analyst