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Northern residents take Bell to court over 911 fees in NWT’s first class-action

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Lawyers for Bell Mobility Inc. will appear in a Yellowknife courtroom on Monday, facing off in a class-action lawsuit launched on behalf of Northern residents who were charged for 911 service on their cellphone bills despite not being able to dial it in an emergency.

After more than five years of procedural wrangling, the case is about to become the first class-action lawsuit in the Northwest Territories to go to trial, in a legal action that covers Bell Mobility customers in NWT, Nunavut and Yukon outside of Whitehorse, which has its own 911 system.

The lawsuit was filed in 2007 by Yellowknife residents James and Samuel Anderson, who took issue with the 75 cents a month, or $9 a year, they had to pay Bell Mobility for 911 service, despite living in a place where local governments had not set up a 911 system.

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"There is an element of discrimination ... [Bell] had some complaints and they didn't react to it," said Keith Landy, a Toronto lawyer with Landy Marr Kats LLP acting for the plaintiffs. "... I think people are just getting fed up with having to pay additional costs if they are not seeing any real benefit."

According to court documents, as of January, 2011, there were 4,336 Bell Mobility customers in Nunavut, 1,405 in Yukon outside Whitehorse, and 24,071 in Northwest Territories. Figuring out how much money Bell could owe these customers if it loses the lawsuit is complex and would be decided at a subsequent second trial. But Mr. Landy estimated the potential damages at $1-million to $3-million.

Bell argues in its statement of defence that it has charged various fees, or no 911 fees at all, in different contracts with its customers over time. It argues that 911 fees were simply meant to cover the costs of the network that would enable a 911 system, and that Bell is not responsible for whether municipalities decide to set up 911 services, something over which it has no control.

A Bell spokesman declined an interview request but said in an e-mail that Bell provides "911 call routing as directed by authorities" and that "whenever mobile customers are in areas served by emergency operators, customer 911 calls will be directed to them."

Sam Marr, another of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said the trial will hear expert testimony that customers in other places in Canada where 911 is not available were not charged the fees, unlike Northerners. Plus, as of 2009, Mr. Marr said – after the lawsuit was launched – Bell and other wireless providers have stopped charging new customers the separate 911 fees.

A Globe and Mail investigation in 2008 revealed that most of the $13-million a month in 911 fees collected by Bell, Rogers and Telus did not actually go toward providing the service and instead went to padding the companies' revenues.

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