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Kevin Doyle and Jessi Moekerk were driving across a snow-covered field near Yellowknife last month when the ground gave way and began to swallow their pickup truck whole.

What they thought was solid earth beneath them turned out to be an unmarked pond. As the truck sank through the ice, the doors jammed against a rising wall of snow.

Instinctively, Mr. Doyle reached for his cellphone and dialled 911.

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It was a mistake only a newcomer to the area would make. And even though it ended well - a passerby rescued them after smashing through a window with a crowbar - locals still bristle at the story.

"Everybody in the North knows you don't get 911," said James Anderson, a retired school superintendent who has lived in the region for decades.

Instead of getting help, Mr. Doyle heard a recording tell him to hang up and try another number.

Every month when cellphone bills arrive, Northern Canadians are forced to pay for a 911 service they can't access.

In recent years, cellphone companies have collected millions of dollars in 911 fees in less-populated regions across Canada where the emergency number is not offered, including Yellowknife.

Those charges are part of a much larger figure that is collected each year in the name of 911.

A Globe and Mail investigation into Canada's lagging 911 system has determined at least $13-million a month is collected in 911 fees on wireless bills across the country. However, the money is not necessarily spent on emergency services - even in places where 911 service is offered.

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Instead, Industry Canada documents obtained through access to information laws show the government has been advised that some of the money is padding general revenues of the wireless industry.

Canada's three largest cellphone companies, Rogers Communications, Bell Canada and Telus, each collected between $3.7-million and $4.8-million a month in 2008, according to a document obtained by The Globe that shows calculations recently discussed at meetings with federal regulators.

While a portion of those fees, about 10 to 20 per cent, goes toward funding 911 dispatch centres, the cellphone companies keep most of the money, which Industry Canada classifies as "surplus" cash.

"I'm not a very sophisticated man ... but to me it's fairly straightforward," Mr. Anderson said from Yellowknife.

"The phone company tells you there is no 911 service, then they charge you for 911 service."

People in the North figure they're being fleeced. The wireless carriers dispute claims their fees are unwarranted.

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Keith McIntosh, director of regulatory affairs for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, says the money is used to pay costs associated with providing 911 service, such as the annual cost of linking cell carriers into the emergency dispatch system.

Since cellphones can be taken to different places, the fees are not charged according to location, the industry says.

The estimated $156-million in 911 fees collected each year across Canada is spread throughout the country's 21 million wireless subscribers.

The wireless companies are not required to disclose how their 911 money is spent, and whether they use all of it for the service, since Ottawa does not regulate the charges.

Nor do the cellphone companies voluntarily list those figures during quarterly earnings. This makes it impossible to tell whether the 911 fees, which were once needed partly to build infrastructure to link cellphones to the emergency phone system, have long since outstripped that purpose.

"These are unregulated rates, so there is no reason to break out any individual costs for any rate plans," Mr. McIntosh said.

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It's only $9 a year on his bill, Mr. Anderson concedes, "but it's the principle."

With 21 million wireless subscribers in Canada, the 911 fees represent $1-billion of new revenue to the cellphone industry every 6½ years.

It is a particularly bitter pill for Yellowknife to swallow. Though Whitehorse recently installed 911 service for residents, Yellowknife is still trying to scrape together enough municipal funds.

As well as charging 911 fees that may exceed the cost of providing the service - or in the case of Yellowknife are collected for services not rendered - the phone companies do not want to contribute money to upgrading Canada's outmoded system.

Adding the ability to locate cellphone callers if a person on the line can't speak or identify a location, is estimated to cost about $50-million. Such technology, which under privacy laws in the United States and Europe can be used only when 911 is dialled, is becoming increasingly critical as cellphones proliferate.

A letter submitted to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in late October by the wireless association states that "the most expeditious way to achieve public benefit objectives" is for Ottawa "to provide sufficient public funding" to complete the job.

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"Where the industry is required to self-fund these obligations, the resources available pose a constraint to the pace of implementation," the letter says.

The cellphone companies have told the government to pay for the upgrades by dipping into the $4.25-billion Ottawa made from selling wireless licences to new entrants in the cellphone market. However, the federal government has not said this is an option, leaving the two sides at an impasse.

The CRTC has decided to let the market decide whether the 911 charges are too high or unnecessary. If customers don't want to pay the fee they can switch cellphone companies, the federal communications regulator says.

However, this is not necessarily possible. Most cellphone companies charge 911 fees of between 50 cents and $1 a month. And multiyear cellphone contracts make it difficult for customers to switch companies without incurring significant costs.

In January, documents obtained by The Globe show Industry Canada went looking for money to help cash-strapped municipalities update their 911 dispatch centres or, in the case of places such as Yellowknife, install the service.

Industry Canada looked to the Infrastructure Canada Program, a fund used to renew aging infrastructure across the country. Rural and remote telecommunications equipment was listed as a priority for the program.

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However, Industry Canada concluded in an internal presentation to staff that using ICP money for 911 services was not viable since "virtually all ICP funding has already been committed."

That meant no federal government funding, and no fix to the problem.

What has upset Mr. Anderson in Yellowknife the most is being told by the wireless companies that he can either pay for 911 or not have a phone.

"They said it's just something everybody has to pay," he said. "I'm not really satisfied with that answer."

He has since asked a lawyer to file a class-action suit against Bell Canada for "unjust enrichment." The company has protested the application and the lawsuit has yet to be certified.

In Yellowknife, Mr. Doyle and Ms. Moekerk are recovering from their car accident.

"It got pretty scary when we realized we couldn't get out," Ms. Moekerk said this week. Despite paying 911 fees on their wireless bills, they know next time not to bother.

The recording Mr. Doyle heard after dialling 911 was brief: "Please hang up and dial the emergency number for your area. Or hang up and dial zero to reach an operator."

Then the phone disconnected. "That recording isn't much help," Mr. Anderson pointed out.

*****

A part of 911 history

Canada pioneered the concept of an emergency phone system in North America in 1959, when Winnipeg created its 999 service.

Nearly half a century later, Clifford Skroopka may owe his life to the fact that alderman A.E. Bennett secured funding for the project - about $44,000.

Records show one of the first calls to the service in Canada came from Mr. Skroopka's mother, Jeanne, who one morning discovered her son, barely 1½ years old, drinking bleach.

"I didn't know what to do," said Ms. Skroopka, now 88. Her call was routed through the 999 headquarters, then patched directly to the city's poison control centre.

Mr. Skroopka, now a 51-year-old city worker in Winnipeg, was not aware of his small place in Canadian history.

He says he doesn't understand the delays in updating the system.

The phone companies collected 911 fees of more than $150-million last year, but are at loggerheads with the federal government over who should pay for service upgrades that would enable 911 to pinpoint calls from cellphones and Internet phones in cases where the caller can't provide an address.

"With all that money they could have just done it already," Mr. Skroopka said.

Grant Robertson

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