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Frustrated with no 911 service, customers fight back

When James Anderson dials 911 from his cellphone in Yellowknife, he gets a recording telling him to hang up because the emergency number doesn't work. Now the retired school superintendent wants his money back.

In a groundbreaking case that could force Canada's wireless companies to surrender some of the $160-million they collect each year from 911 fees on cellphone bills, Mr. Anderson is taking Bell Canada to court. He argues that for years the company has been charging him - along with tens of thousands of other Canadians in remote communities - for a service that doesn't exist.

It is a case with implications for cities and towns in at least nine provinces or territories where 911 service is not offered, but the cellphone companies still charge a 911 fee on monthly bills. Lawyers representing Mr. Anderson will appear in a Yellowknife courtroom this week seeking certification as a class-action.

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"Despite the lack of access to a 911 emergency operator, Bell Mobility charges these Canadians," Mr. Anderson's lawyers argue in documents filed in the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories. "These Canadians are paying fees for 911 services which they do not receive. This is unfair."

The fees are a murky area of wireless regulation. Companies do not disclose how much they make from the fees, and there are no federal requirements on how they must spend the money. The cash from 911 fees can go into general revenues and the price does not have to reflect the actual cost of a service, nor whether the service is even offered.

In its defence, Bell argues that though Mr. Anderson has no 911 service where he lives, the fees cover him when he travels elsewhere in Canada.

Mobile phones are just that: mobile," Bell argues in court documents.

"They can be used by customers in any number of locations, not just the jurisdiction in which their billing addresses happen to be located."

Bell also argues that it is not responsible for ensuring that 911 service exists in all communities, that local municipalities are in charge of that, even though Bell and other wireless companies collect fees.

However, Mr. Anderson and others in Yellowknife find this preposterous. He is joined in the lawsuit by his son, Samuel Anderson, a firefighter at the Yellowknife airport.

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They believe the phone company shouldn't charge them 75 cents a month to hear a recording telling them to hang up and dial local police or fire stations, while giving no alternate numbers to dial.

At 75 cents a month, Mr. Anderson's $9 bill each year may seem like a paltry sum to launch a major lawsuit over.

However, when those charges are spread across the country, 911 fees add up to an estimated $160-million or more each year, according to regulatory documents obtained by The Globe and Mail and subscriber figures made public by the wireless industry.

Landy Marr Kats LLP, a well-known Toronto firm that specializes in class-action suits, is representing Mr. Anderson in the case, and estimates Bell has been charging at least 50,000 customers in the North such fees for years, including more than 20,000 in the Northwest Territories.

However, if the case is granted class-action status, it could spread to include cellphone customers in the Yukon, B.C, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, since those provinces also have communities where 911 is not offered but fees are collected.

The case comes after several near tragedies in Yellowknife over the years where cellphone callers not from the area instinctively dialled 911 only to be told there was no service.

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In one example, Kevin Doyle and Jessi Moekerk were driving across a snow-covered field last winter that was actually a hidden pond. When their truck broke through the ice, Mr. Doyle reached for his cell phone to dial 911 but got the recording.

The two were saved by a passerby who smashed through the truck's windows with a crowbar and pulled them out.

"When you dial 911, it says to dial the emergency number for your area. But if you were in an emergency in Yellowknife, would you know what number to call?" Mr. Anderson said.

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About the Author
Senior Writer

Grant Robertson is an award-winning journalist who has been recognized for investigative journalism, sports writing and business reporting. More

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