Providing enhanced 911 (E-911) service for wireless telephone customers is a statewide issue that should be addressed with state legislation.
After looking into various options for providing E-911 services, Douglas County commissioners have put the issue on the back burner because of uncertainty about how much it would cost to implement such a plan. The obvious funding source for the services is a surcharge on wireless telephone customers, but County Administrator Craig Weinaug said the chances such a fee would be approved by the Kansas Legislature were slim, at least in the near term.
It's a shame that when the technology exists to provide this important safety service for Kansas wireless telephone users, state lawmakers can't figure out how to put the technology to work.
The most important feature of E-911 services is that it allows law enforcement officials to trace the source of cell phone calls so emergency help can reach the callers even if they can't describe their exact location. Such traces already are possible for the land-based telephone lines.
Users of land-based telephone lines currently pay 75 cents a month to support 911 services. Cellular phone customers pay nothing. Adding the 75-cent charge to cellular phone bills would go a long way toward financing the E-911 service for those customers.
It's hard to imagine that any cell-phone user would resent such a fee. The reason many people have cell phones is to give them peace of mind when they are driving longer distances. If they are in unfamiliar territory, it may be difficult for them to pinpoint their location in case of an emergency. E-911 could be a lifesaving service for them.
A growing number of people are dropping landline service and using cellular phones for their primary lines. They pay nothing for 911 service, and some counties are reporting a subsequent decline in income to support their existing 911 services. People with both landline and cellular phones are paying 75 cents on their landline phone for 911 service, but it wouldn't be a hardship on such multiphone families to pay the charge on their cell phones as well.
E-911 services is available for cell-phone users in a few Kansas locations, but it's time for the state to step in and coordinate this process to make sure the service is available statewide and that funds collected from cell-phone fees are fairly distributed. Counties with higher populations would collect more fees, but residents of those counties also would benefit greatly from having E-911 service available in smaller counties across the state.
When the Legislature returns to Topeka next month, it will find many things it can't do because funding isn't available. Approving a cell-phone fee to finance expansion of E-911 services is something the Legislature can do without putting any additional pressure on the state budget. There's no reason to delay in providing this important service for Kansans.