Report: Consumer Protection

9-1-1 Surcharges

Who Pays and Why Colorado’s Consumer Advocate Should Not Get Disconnected
Released by: CoPIRG

Whether you are a farmer on the Eastern Plains with a cell phone, a small business owner in a Western Slope town with a traditional landline, or a retired couple in suburban Denver using an internet-based cable phone service, you pay a fee every month on your telephone bill to ensure that when you dial 9-1-1, your call will be answered.  As fees increase and new 9-1-1 technologies are considered, it is critical that Colorado’s consumer advocate, the Office of Consumer Counsel, is allowed to do its job and ensure consumers are getting the value and service they deserve from our 9-1-1 network.

In Colorado, the 9-1-1 network, or Emergency Telephone System, is governed by 57 different local jurisdictions or governing bodies. 

In order to fund 9-1-1 service across Colorado, every Coloradan pays a 9-1-1 monthly surcharge (the Emergency Telephone Surcharge) on their phone bill. Coloradans pay this surcharge regardless of whether they are one of the people or businesses that use the estimated 1.1 million traditional landline phones in Colorado or they use one of the 5.1 million cell phones or over 800,000 cable telephone devices.

The 9-1-1 surcharge varies widely between governing bodies. The lowest surcharge in Colorado is $.43 per month and the highest is $1.75.  The average across the governing bodies is $.91. That average has increased by 44% since 1998.

The reason for the differences in 9-1-1 surcharges vary. Population plays a major factor. Other reasons for the differences in the 9-1-1 charges include differences in the services provided and the costs of those services.

Advances in technology provide new opportunities to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of 9-1-1 service and over the next decade, it is likely many 9-1-1 governing bodies will decide to invest in changes or upgrades. According to the 9-1-1 Colorado Foundation, there are a number of upgrades, also known as Next Generation 9-1-1, which could help save lives and could be considered.   Those include:

  1. Better Location Determination – Upgrades can improve the ability to better determine the location of incoming calls. Instead of just knowing the building you are in, technological improvements can allow first responders to know the precise floor you are on.
  2. Internet Protocol (IP) Networks – Transitioning to a broadband digital based Emergency Service Network can improve communications within and between 9-1-1 Call Centers. 
  3. Automatic Crash Notification and Alarm Systems – Increasingly, systems like OnStar provide an opportunity for an OnStar operator to communicate with someone involved in a crash and relay information to a 9-1-1 Call Center. The operator cannot simply dial 9-1-1 themselves. Often, they have to locate the nearest, most appropriate 9-1-1 Call Center near you, find the appropriate 10-digit Call Center number and manually call it. This number can be treated as a secondary number by a busy Call Center and might not be picked up until the incoming 9-1-1 calls have been managed. This can cause delays in response time. Upgrades will allow these Automatic Crash Notifications (ACN) to more efficiently connect with the appropriate Call Centers.  
  4. Communication with Alarm and Health Monitoring Systems – Similar to ACNs, home alarm systems and health monitoring devices are being used to identify and communicate an emergency. But also similar to ACNs, the emergency might be routed manually through the 10-digit secondary Call Center number, causing delay. Upgrades will allow more efficient connection to the Call Center or even directly to an appropriate first responder.  

Not every technological advance should be immediately adopted. New technologies must be proven effective before residents’ dollars are spent on major upgrades. New technologies must also be warranted for a particular community. The needs and challenges in a mountain town are different than the needs and challenges of an Eastern Plains farm community. Finally, a new technology must provide value and should be compared to other technologies, strategies and funding options before a local governing body commits large amounts of consumer dollars to an upgrade.

Before the advent of cellular and other non-landline telephone services, all telephone companies had to appear before the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and propose changes to rates and services. When this happened, the Office of Consumer Counsel acted as Colorado’s consumer advocate in those cases advocating against unwarranted rate hikes, anti-consumer policies and inadequate service. The OCC’s role is unique. It is the only entity whose mission is 100% focused on advocating on behalf of consumers.

Despite major changes in telecommunications regulation and the industry as a whole, the PUC and the OCC still play a role in 9-1-1 services.  Colorado law requires that any 9-1-1 surcharge that exceeds $.70 must receive PUC approval.  Currently 23 governing bodies are above this threshold and must get approval to increase it more. 30 governing bodies are at this threshold and must get approval if they determine they need an increase.

When proposals are made, the OCC reviews them on behalf of consumers. The OCC analyzes whether the rate increase is justified. Increasingly, the OCC is also monitoring how local 9-1-1 governing bodies are communicating rate increases to their residents. In addition, the OCC is a member of the 9-1-1 Advisory Task Force and plays an active role in conversations around 9-1-1 Next Generation upgrades.

The OCC’s expertise and unique consumer-focused mission provide an important voice for consumers on 9-1-1 service issues. With major 9-1-1 upgrades on the horizon, which will lead to more investments by local governing bodies into 9-1-1 Next Generation technologies, the OCC has a critical role to play, as proposals come before the PUC and as conversations happen outside of the PUC, in helping to make sure future 9-1-1 service is effective, efficient and reasonably priced. 

Despite the clear role the OCC plays on behalf of consumers, there is a proposal in the State Senate, SB15-271, that would remove the OCC from any decisions regarding 9-1-1 service. If enacted, 9-1-1 service changes that exceed the $.70 surcharge benchmark will still come before the PUC for approval. But the office tasked with solely representing consumers, will be silent.

State Senators might not realize the extent to which their residents are paying more or less for 9-1-1 service. By averaging the 9-1-1 surcharge across the counties that a State Senator represents, we can see which Senators represent residents that pay the highest fees. Those areas with higher fees will have to present future surcharge changes to the PUC. Those residents will directly benefit from the presence of an OCC as it monitors and weighs-in on those proposals, helping to ensure they provide the best value to residents.

Now is not the time to disconnect the Office of Consumer Counsel from the 9-1-1 surcharge review process. 53 governing bodies are already at or above the PUC benchmark and will need to propose any surcharge increases to the PUC. Since 1998, the average rate increase has been 44%, so it is reasonable to expect more increases in the next few years. In addition, technological advances provide major opportunities to improve 9-1-1 services. But some of those improvements could be unwarranted or unjustifiably expensive. The OCC has the expertise to represent consumers as these proposals come forward.

The State Senate should amend SB15-271 to ensure that the office solely responsible for advocating for consumers, the OCC, can continue to fulfill its mission. When it comes to 9-1-1, all expertise and resources should be available to ensure that local 9-1-1 services are providing the best value to those who are footing the bill. 

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