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Wireless companies challenge Nanaimo's 911 call levy

The City of Nanaimo is being called out by wireless providers concerned with a bylaw that would impose a levy on federally regulated companies to fund 911 calls through cellphones or other wireless devices.

Telus Communications Corp., Rogers Communication Partnership and Bell Mobility Inc. filed a petition through the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association to the Supreme Court of British Columbia Tuesday challenging the city's ability to impose a levy on an industry governed by federal regulations.

Nanaimo passed a bylaw on Nov. 22, 2010, to implement a levy on wireless providers to help pay for the central Island 911 Service. The Regional District of Nanaimo and Cowichan Valley Regional District, which are partners in the 911 service, passed identical bylaws.

All three local governments are named in the petition.

Per Kristensen, Nanaimo's director of information technology, said the bylaw was created to take the cost burden of operating the 911 service off Nanaimo taxpayers and apply it to users of wireless devices.

"We did analysis on the calls to 911 and over 50 per cent of the calls are coming from the wireless side," said Kristensen. "We do not get anything from the wireless side as far as funding the 911 service. It's all funded through land lines, which make up less than 50 per cent of the calls to 911."

He added that while the petition was registered with the court in Vancouver, the city had not yet been legally served with a challenge as of Thursday.

Nanaimo partners with the RDN and CVRD to operate the central Island 911 Service out of the Nanaimo RCMP detachment at an annual cost of about $1.5 million, one-third of which is covered by land-line levies.

Billing wireless users as well is estimated to save local taxpayers about $500,000 annually.

The 911 centre, which covers the Malahat to north of Lantzville, receives about 53,000 calls annually.

But the wireless telecommunications association questions the ability of local governments to apply a tax to a federally regulated industry. Spokesman Marc Choma said even if it could, the nature of wireless technology would make it impossible for companies to bill its customers for using a 911 service.

"In general there are a wide variety of issues that would also need to be addressed, not just if cities can impose a levy on wireless providers," said Choma. "Examples include collecting the tax from prepaid customers who don't get a monthly bill ... another issue is households that have at least one land line and, like in my case, four cellphones. You'd be paying that tax five times a month."

Choma added that the appeal of cellphones is their mobility, so they aren't tied to a municipal address. He said it would be virtually impossible for wireless companies to have billing mechanisms for each individual municipality in B.C. or across Canada.

"It could be that maybe somebody's cellphone is registered in that municipality but they don't live there, they live somewhere else. And how do you collect a tax from visitors using the service in the city?" he said.

Al Kenning, Nanaimo's city manager, said the bylaw was passed by city council knowing there could be a challenge from wireless providers.

"There was always the possibility that this could have happened," said Kenning. "I believe staff and council were hopeful those companies would support the local government and the local community and switching the burden off the taxpayers and putting it on the users. It appears, however, as though they're not willing to do that."

Kristensen said the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunication Commission has not provided municipalities with a mechanism to cover 911 call centre costs from wireless devices.

Choma said Nanaimo's bylaw is the first known attempt by a Canadian municipality to impose such a tax.

reporter2@nanaimobulletin.com

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