Lawsuits Allege Verizon, AT&T Dodge 911 Service Fees

Several lawsuits allege large telecom companies are shortchanging payments to 911 emergency services forcing the government to dedicate millions of dollars to call centers across the country.  With problems of under-funding and under-staffing straining 911 call centers across the country, increased scrutiny from federal agencies and a series of high dollar lawsuits could force phone companies to reassess fee structures and pay more money to fund emergency calls.

Telecom Providers Sued for Dodging 911 Fees

A handful of lawsuits across the country have been filed against telecom companies including AT &T and Verizon alleging that the providers are not charging customers 911 service fees sufficient to meet legal requirements.  Allegedly, the phone services have dropped or drastically reduced 911 fee payments in an effort to compete for customers by lowering cell phone bills.  Many customers don’t notice, or don’t care, but 911 service fees paid to providers are subsequently paid as a tax required to keep 911 operating centers functional.  The various lawsuits filed across the country differ in specifics, but all generally allege that companies are ducking 911 fee payments in order to earn a competitive advantage.

According to one lawsuit, the 911 fee underpayments amount to $6.9 million annually, putting a strain on 911 operating centers which consistently go over budget.  Research conducted for a complaint in Pennsylvania shows that Verizon does not charge 911 fees at all on 48% of the 240,000 cellular lines, while some smaller telecommunications providers don’t include 911 service fees in any cell phone contract.  The plaintiffs in most of the lawsuits are counties which are hit hard by expenses of 911 operating centers which are not covered by telecommunications providers, but so far the prospect of successful litigation is uncertain.

In defense of the litigation the telecommunications providers have not only disputed the validity of the charges, but have also responded that plaintiffs do not have standing to sue for enforcement of the 911 fee law.  A judge in Tennessee has already dismissed one complaint because the plaintiff county was not an “intended beneficiary” of the law requiring 911 fees be paid.  A second lawsuit is in jeopardy of dismissal because the telecom provider has argued that the individual subscribers are responsible for the fees.  With several more lawsuits pending, there will be more clarity regarding the possibility of judicial redress in the near future.

911 Emergency Services Falling Behind

The lawsuits against telecommunications companies for failing to charge 911 fees comes against the backdrop of a developing crises for emergency response services across the country.  As counties and states struggle to fund 911 operating centers, news reports across the country have highlighted troubling delays in response time.  Faced with high call volumes and short staffing some callers are even given busy messages when placing emergency calls, and outdated technology has made it difficult for operators to locate callers who use cell phones without specific directions.

Many states and counties lack proper legislative or administrative oversight of 911 services, and as such there is little enforcement of 911 fee requirements.  The lawsuits against Verizon, Bell South, and AT & T allege the telecom giants have taken advantage of this enforcement gap for competitive advantage.  As the fate of the legal action hangs in the balance, increased awareness of the failures of 911 emergency services has begun to take root within the federal government.

FCC Turning Attention to 911 Services

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ratcheted up pressure on Congress to dedicate funds and legislative initiatives designed to improve 911 call center technology.  The agency has pushed for a nationwide upgrade of emergency centers to next-generation 911 (NG911) which, among other things, will allow operators to better locate emergency callers and even receive video or text communications. 

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has also Congress to provide legislative initiatives which will crack down on states and counties which divert 911 funds for other purposes.  Regardless of the outcome of the 911 lawsuits against the major telecom providers, the growing failure to fund and support 911 emergency centers has gained national attention and federal action to improve services seems imminent.

 

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