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Canada's cellphone industry believes a government-mandated upgrade of the country's 911 system, which dispatchers expect will save lives by helping to locate wireless calls, may cost more than expected.

However, until details of the upgrade are made public next month, the industry does not know what it will cost.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association said yesterday that technology needed to bring the lagging 911 system up to date with those of other countries could cost "hundreds of millions."

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However, that number was met with skepticism by the emergency-dispatch community, which has argued at regulatory meetings that cost estimates are being inflated. The figure also differs significantly from the industry's own previous estimates.

In November, Keith McIntosh, director of regulatory affairs for the industry group, indicated the costs were lower. "We're looking at probably tens of millions of dollars in investment" per major carrier, Mr. McIntosh said at the time. Canada has three national wireless carriers.

CWTA spokesman Marc Choma said yesterday the sector now believes the cost could run into the hundreds of millions. "It depends on the rollout," he said. "Every carrier will have different costs with the size of their networks."

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ordered the cellphone industry this week to update its outmoded 911 technology to locate wireless calls, effectively ending more than five years of debate.

Canada's 911 system is lagging that of the United States and parts of Europe and Asia, as efforts to upgrade have been stalled by protracted disagreements over who should pay.

The industry wants public money used, while emergency dispatchers want the wireless industry to provide funding from 911 fees. Those fees are estimated at more than $150-million a year.

The CRTC decision comes after a recent Globe and Mail investigation found several deaths and near-fatalities in the past year were linked to problems with outdated 911 technology. More than half of all calls to 911 now come from cellphones.

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CRTC director Paul Godin said Tuesday that the industry will be required to start locating cellphone 911 calls by February of 2010. Mr. Choma said he did not know whether that timeline can be met until more is known about the plan.

It is possible that Canada may stagger the rollout of the new technology starting with a few cities. The CRTC will provide more details on the strategy next month, including how it will be funded.

Mr. Choma said his higher estimate also includes the amount dispatch centres across Canada would have to spend on their own to update equipment, in addition to the costs incurred by cellphone companies. Dispatchers are mostly funded by municipal and provincial funds, depending on their location.

However, some jurisdictions indicate they are ready to go with minimal investment. Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Prince Edward Island are a few jurisdictions that expect only minor adjustments.

"In PEI we upgraded our [dispatch]equipment nearly three years ago so we could receive and interpret cell location data," said Larry Avery, a project manager for the PEI Office of Public Safety. The province has been waiting since then for the debate to be resolved in the industry.

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