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Kentucky Cellphone Users May See Rise in 911 Service Fees

New legislation would raise the monthly emergency 911 services fee on cellphone bills from 70 cents to $1 in the Bluegrass State.

Smartphone users in Kentucky could see an increase on their wireless bills later this year, as legislation was introduced to raise the 911 emergency services fee charged to cellphones from 70 cents to $1.

Authored by Rep. Martha Jane King, D-Lewisburg, House Bill 391 tries to beef-up funding for emergency services as more people ditch landlines – which carry a more robust 911 fee – for smartphones. The proposal also changes the distribution formula of the wireless emergency services money to help next-generation 911 efforts in Kentucky.

Eighty percent of the wireless 911 fees would directly support 911 services across the state, while 15 percent would be earmarked for next-generation 911 technology. Five percent will be used to provide grant funding for local 911 call center consolidation and equipment projects.

The wireless 911 services fee hasn’t been raised since its inception in 1998. According to a statement on King’s website, in 1996, 96 percent of homes had traditional wired phone service. U.S. Census data reports now one in three homes no longer has a landline.

That’s a problem for some 911 call centers, however. Many rely on fees to support operations and technology upgrades. That may have been fine decades ago when a small car accident might have generated a couple of calls to 911. But today, with easy access to cellphones, 911 dispatchers may field 10 times that number on a single incident.

While the end result is a positive for first responders and public safety efforts, it also costs more to handle additional calls, and in the future, text messages and multimedia. Local governments in Kentucky have been contributing to 911 services for years through general fund appropriations. But as cities and counties face tighter purse strings, that may not last.

“We keep filling the gap with local tax dollars and support for 911, but it’s no secret – much like the state, local budgets are strapped,” said Shelby County Judge/Executive Rob Rothenburger, in a statement.

In an interview with Government Technology, King explained that after going to several meetings talking about 911 services and cellphone fees, it became clear there was a disparity between what would be required going forward and what was being collected. She added that with “70 to 80 percent” of 911 calls coming in on cellphones, something needed to be done to ensure 911 connectivity in the state, particularly as next-generation systems come online that enable text-to-911 services.

“No one wants to pay extra fees,” King said. “We want to be prudent in making sure we use taxpayer money wisely. But I think it’s important that we not just look at the system we have, but where we’re going to have to go.”

The legislation also addresses a discrepancy between how 911 services are paid for by pre-paid cellphone users. King told Government Technology that amendments were made to 911 funding in 2006 that calculated the fee charged to pre-paid cellphones based on $50 dollars of talk-time per month. HB 391 would align pre-paid and post-pay mobile wireless so that 911 fees on both are equitable.

At press time, the bill was assigned to the Kentucky House of Representatives Appropriations & Revenue Committee. No hearing had been scheduled. But while HB 391 has the support of local government and public safety advocates, it could be a bumpy road for the measure.

King believes HB 391 will receive opposition from legislators who outright refuse to vote for fee increases.

“What it is going to take is statesmanship and people being aware that this is an essential, public service that we need for people back home,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be about politics. It’s something we need to do. But it’s going to take courage to move past that and do what’s right.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.