Cell users likely to shoulder 911 upgrade cost

After five years of debate and foot dragging a drastically jacked-up price tag for upgrading the country’s outmoded wireless 911 systems is likely to be shouldered by Canadian cell phone users, industry watchers said.

The Canadian Radio-Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will release next month requirements for the cell phone industry to update emergency systems so that 911 operators can locate wireless emergency calls. The ability to locate wireless 911 calls has been available in the U.S. and other parts of the world since 2005. The CRTC wants the Canadian upgrade completed by 2010.

In November, Keith McIntosh, director of regulatory affairs for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) was quoted as saying that upgrades would probably require tens of millions of dollars in investment from wireless carriers. But last week Marc Choma, director of communications for CWTA said the actual figures could run up to “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“Figuring out the actual cost is very complicated. The expenditure will include not only the infrastructure cost but also the operation and administration, plus the cost to 911 operators who will be accepting the emergency calls,” said Chroma.

He said the higher estimate includes expenses that dispatchers across the country will incur to upgrade their own equipment.

Depending on their location dispatchers are usually funded by municipal or provincial governments. “The CRTC has no identified any funding model for the upgrade,” Chroma said.

Largely because of disagreement over who pays for the upgrade, Canada’s 911 system lags behind those of the U.S., Europe and Asia.

When callers using landlines make a 911 call, operators can immediately trace where the call is coming from. In Canada, 911 callers need to tell the operator where they are because carriers have not made the necessary upgrades to the infrastructure that will enable cell phone signals to accurately pin-pointed.

The issue gained prominence following the recent incidents of deaths of 911 cell phone callers who might have been saved had emergency crews been able to locate them faster. Cell phone users now account for nearly half of 911 calls in Canada.

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The CRTC wants all wireless carriers to be able to offer 911 call locating capabilities on or before 2010, but there is no agreement yet from concerned parties as to how the cost will be handled. The CWTA wants public money, while the CRTC and emergency call dispatchers wants funding to come from the carriers.

Asked if public funding will be available for the upgrade, Len Katz, vice chairman of the CRTC said: “This is not a decision that the CRTC will make…It will be up to the carriers how they will introduce the changes and at what cost.”

“Ultimately, cell phone users are likely to be dinged for the upgrade one way or another,” says Carmi Levy, senior vice-president for strategic consulting at AR Communications Inc. in Toronto.

“The announcement of a higher upgrade price tag is most probably a way of conditioning users to increases the will be seeing it their monthly statements,” he said.

Levy believes it is ironic that carriers trip over themselves in competing to be the first in the market to introduce entertainment-based cell phone features but are hesitant to upgrade the 911 system.

“Rogers invested more than $500 million to develop its 3G cellular network in 2006 and last year plunked down more money to upgrade to 3.5 G. Carriers want to be the first to allow users to download music faster but drag their feet when it comes to safety,” Levy said.

Another analyst said, carriers should have no difficulty funding the upgrade.

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“It’s a no brainer. What’s the industry doing with the $150 million carriers have earned over the last 10 years charging users for 911 service fees?” asked Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst for Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

Tauschek said the country’s more than 20.1 million subscribers pay as much as 75 cents a month for cell phone 911 services, “even when 911 services are not available in their area.” He said carriers can accomplish the upgrade with current technology.

“Many handsets now have GPS capability and carriers can use cheaper triangulation methods which can be effective but not necessarily expensive.”

He also slammed the government for not being able to push for the upgrade earlier.

“The delay in Canada was caused by CRTC which initially said it was up to the industry and market forces to determine the need for the upgrade. The ability to locate cell-based 911 calls was mandated in the U.S. back in 2002 and infrastructure was in place by 2005.”

Katz of CRTC said the government agency has been studying the matter with wireless industry and the Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP), the country-wide emergency answering service handling the 911 calls.

“There is no issue for the delay. We have been studying which system will work best because we want the system to work when it’s rolled out,” he said.

In the past, the CRTC mandated that VoIP providers make 911 services available to their customers.

Levy sees the 911 call location issue as a missed marketing opportunity for carriers.

“If one of the carriers had gone out on its own to develop the capability, it could have been a huge differentiating factor that would set its apart from the competitors,” he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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