August 9, 2010 By Russell Nichols
For years, counties in Mississippi have been collecting fees for 911 calls made from landline phones to help pay for emergency services, such as new technology, call towers and dispatching upgrades.
But there was a loophole: While 911 callers had to pay for landline calls (up to $1 for residential and $2 for commercial), people who called 911 though an Internet-based phone service dodged the fee. But a number of counties are enacting legislation to put an end to it. The Hinds County Board of Supervisors, for example, just passed an amendment to impose a $1 monthly fee on Internet-based phone service.
"The amendment was passed because there was no amount of money being retrieved from people with Internet-based phones," said board President Robert Graham, who proposed levying the fee.
The service charge complies with the state's recent emergency telecommunications bill signed into law by Gov. Haley Barbour, which imposes a $1 tax on voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and prepaid cell phones to help fund 911 services.
As more and more people choose to use cell phones rather than landlines -- more than 20 percent of households now only have cell phones -- recent efforts to add fees to digital phone services shouldn't come as a surprise. In Hinds County, officials can't yet say how much revenue the new fee will generate, although Graham said the county has about 18 different companies that provide Internet-based phone service. The county, he added, receives about $30,000 a month from the 911 fees collected from landline calls.
For the past year, Hinds County officials have been working to upgrade its 911 system with technology such as GPS tracking tools for emergency responders to more accurately pinpoint callers who dial the emergency number from a cell phone.
Jimmie Lewis, the county's Emergency Operations Center director, believes the extra money will come in handy. With fees collected from the landline calls, he said, the county has been able to assist emergency responders with radio communications and upgrade some of the public safety answering points, the centers that take and answer 911 calls.
"The money supports the county as far as purchasing equipment," he said. "Hopefully the new fees will enhance what is already being issued to the county."
Even with the new VoIP 911 fee, Graham said, the county still has another 911 loophole to address: people using out-of-state cell phone service, including visitors or students attending school with a cell phone plan not subject to in-state fees.
"How do we know you're here?" Graham said. "And how are we going to charge you if you are?"
County officials, he said, are in the process of figuring out how to handle this problem, but no concrete solutions have been determined.