I love Wal-Mart. I love it because I can find just about everything I need there. And you can’t beat the prices. This week, at the National Emergency Number Association’s annual conference in Indianapolis, I discovered yet another reason to adore the big-box retailer.

I was listening to a panel discussion regarding the funding challenges that afflict the 911 sector. Dane Snowden, vice president for external and state affairs for CTIA — the lobbying organization for wireless carriers — was bringing attendees up to date on efforts to solve the prepaid wireless phone dilemma. Unlike post-paid phones, there traditionally has been no way to collect 911 surcharge fees from prepaid phone users, because there is no contract for such devices, thus no billing mechanism.

This is a huge problem for the 911 sector, because prepaid wireless phones currently account for about 20% of the market and “we’re seeing more and more people doing that,” Snowden said. Millions of dollars in 911 surcharge fees are being lost every month as a result, and that only will rise as the trend accelerates, as expected.

Snowden said progress is being made on this front. Two years ago, model legislation was created that would require retailers to collect 911 surcharge fees at the point of sale (POS) for any prepaid wireless handset they sell, just as they collect sales tax.

“A lot of stores make a lot of money from selling our products. Our view is, if you’re going to sell our products, you have to do this, as well,” Snowden said.

Last year, three states — Texas, Maine and Wisconsin — used this model legislation to enact POS-collection laws. This year, eight more states have joined the fold or are expected to do so: Colorado, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Indiana, Virginia and Rhode Island. That’s the good news. The bad news is that large retailers are working energetically to kill such bills, Snowden said. “We’ve had a lot of trouble with the retail community,” he said. “The big-box stores — Best Buy, Radio Shack, etc. — don’t want to do this.”

One exception is Wal-Mart. According to Snowden, Wal-Mart “came on board early and has been on board all along” regarding the collection of 911 surcharge fees at the time a prepaid phone is sold.

This is a situation that affects all of public safety, not just the 911 sector. The public-safety answering point is the hub of the first-response wheel. Call-takers and dispatchers have to make the right decisions in terms of the personnel and equipment they send to an emergency, or people die. That means they need the best-possible training and equipment. In turn, that means funding is needed. There is a serious funding shortage afflicting public safety right now, and it can be argued that the 911 sector has been hit the hardest. For that reason, it is imperative that pre-paid wireless users pay their fair share in terms of supporting 911 service. And, if retailers are able to collect sales tax at the point of sale, then there is no good reason why they can’t also collect a 911 surcharge fee when they sell a prepaid wireless device.

I am confident that the cellular and public-safety lobbyists will continue their work on this important issue. In the meantime, I will do my part by giving Wal-Mart even more of my business. I suggest you do the same. When you do, drop a note to the corporate offices of Best Buy and Radio Shack — and every other retailer who’s fighting these POS-collection laws — letting them know why you did so.

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