MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

December 9, 2012

E-911 fee issue leads to fruitless quest for area man

Wireless data line assessed fees under 911 system

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Tracking down the validity of a fee turned into a bureaucratic nightmare for a Checotah man who questioned the assessment on his wireless Internet service connection.

Gary Glover said the monthly fee in question is being assessed pursuant to a state law intended to fund enhanced emergency call centers. The 911 Wireless Emergency Number Act provides for the assessment on a county-by-county basis by an affirmative vote of the people.

Glover said he supports the assessment of the enhanced 911 fee as long as the revenue is collected and distributed in accordance with the law. But he questions whether the fee being assessed applies to wireless connections dedicated to data transmissions that lack the capability of dialing a 911 call center.

During his six-month quest for answers, Glover unearthed nothing but more questions. The responses Glover received revealed what he describes as a lack of oversight of a system charged with the collection of millions of dollars annually.

“I asked for a legal opinion and, of course, I didn’t get one — it just flabbergasted me so much that no one in state government could answer my question,” Glover said. “It makes me a little nervous when I have to depend on a private company to decide whether it’s proper to collect a fee when the state cannot answer that question.”

Glover’s search for answers began after Cross Communications changed the way it delivers wireless Internet service. Glover said the company used to provide the service from an antenna the company maintained. The company now delivers Internet services over a wireless telephone connection.

V. David Miller II, Cross Communications president, said the broadband devices used to access the company’s Internet services are assigned a 10-digit number. The 911 Wireless Emergency Number Act, Miller said, requires “wireless service providers” to assess the fee on each “wireless telecommunications connection.”

A “wireless telecommunications connection” is defined in part as “the 10-digit access number assigned to a customer.” Miller said Cross Communications began collecting the fee in response to a legal opinion rendered by an Oklahoma City law firm that represents the company.

“When somebody says you better start collecting those fees, you do it,” Miller said, noting a litany of fees telecommunications companies are required by law to collect. “Because it has a 10-digit number, we have to collect that fee — if he was able to get a digital subscriber line without a number, that wouldn’t be a problem.”

Glover, however, countered the explanation provided by the law firm that represents Cross Communications by pointing to the law’s definition of a “wireless service provider.” The definition excludes from that category providers of “a service whose users do not have access to 911 service” and communication channels “used only for data transmission.”

“Since my wireless Internet service does not allow me to access the 911 system and is only used for data transmission, Cross Telephone does not meet the definition of a wireless service provider,” Glover stated in a letter written to the Oklahoma Attorney General’s consumer protection division.

Glover said he has yet to receive a response to his Nov. 22 inquiry. Similar requests for answers sent to the Statewide 911 Advisory Board, the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector’s Office, Gov. Mary Fallin’s office and state legislators have yielded no satisfactory answers.

“No agency has been able to respond to my request for an interpretation of the law,” Glover said. “I have also reviewed the most recent national FCC report on 911 fee collections — Oklahoma is one of three states that didn’t provide that didn’t provide any information on the total amount of fees collected and how these funds are expended.”

Darryl Maggard, coordinator of Muskogee City-County Enhanced 911 Trust Authority and a member of the statewide advisory board, said the lack of a central oversight agency “is frustrating.”

The statewide board, Maggard said, discussed Glover’s concerns during its regular meeting in August. Members, however, concluded the advisory board lacks the authority to investigate or enforce the laws through which it was created.

“We have this disjointed system for collections, and to be a customer out there trying to get a complaint resolved I’m sure it can be frustrating,” Maggard said, noting instances when the advisory board has experienced problems getting answers. “I can’t imagine when you get down to the customer level — the typical person wouldn’t know even where to start.”

Maggard said he understands both sides of the argument: Glover’s frustration with the ambiguity of the law and the apprehension of Cross Communication’s officials about not collecting the fee.

“In other states there have been class-action lawsuits filed against companies for not collecting and remitting fees,” Maggard said. “I am sure that news is resonating throughout the industry.”

Maggard said one significant factor missing from the equation is the Oklahoma Legislature’s failure to fund the position for a statewide 911 coordinator.

“This is something we’ve been pushing ... but the Legislature has never funded that position,” Maggard said. “If we had a state coordinator in place, that person could become an advocate and push for needed changes in the law.”

While the statewide board lacks the authority to help Glover find the answers for which he is looking, Maggard said as an advisory panel to the lawmakers and the governor, it can advocate for some clarity in the law.

Glover said he would like to see the Legislature establish a central authority for what he sees as a fractured system with inadequate oversight.

“I would like to see my representative introduce a bill that would get that done,” Glover said.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.