911 & City-utility surcharge on a data-only EVDO card?

Sprint EVDO wireless bill screenshotFor the past 5 months, I have spent a significant amount of time online thanks to the Sprint Novatel U720 USB modem. The modem – which operates seamlessly on both Windows & Apple hardware – is the perfect companion for anyone looking for true mobile broadband. Due to the fact that Sprint’s EVDO network operated flawlessly [providing amazing connectivity speeds], I had never made it a point to nit-pick each line of the monthly bill. Curiosity got the best of me once I could no longer justify a $2-5 fluctuation (difference) at the end of each billing cycle. Lo and behold, what I noticed was enough to make me scratch my head in bewilderment…

The Sprint Novatel U720 USB modem is assigned a standard phone number. However, the phone number is not a true phone number in that calls can be made / received or messages sent / received. The number is more of a convenience for Sprint / Nextel – simplifying network-wide account management. Anyone who dials the assigned phone number will be prompted to leave a voicemail. Tomfoolery! My EVDO modem has no keypad, screen, or way to alert me of missing calls or messages! Yet, monthly bills include taxes and surcharges which would should only be associated with actual cellphones. Right? Four charges immediately jump out:

Additional Sprint Charges:

  1. Federal-Fed. 911 Fee ($0.40)
  2. Seattle City-Utility Users Surcharge ($3.82)

Government Fees & Taxes:

  1. Washington State-911 Taxes ($0.20)
  2. King County-911 Taxes ($0.50)

The “Seattle City-Utility Users Surcharge” requires a little more research, but the 911 fees are questionable. Again, the Novatel U720 USB modem is not a phone, nor does dialing 9-1-1 on the make-believe keypad before placing it against my head improve my chances of being rescued in an emergency situation. I rang Sprint customer service in search of an explanation.

Looking for answers, on hold with Sprint CSR’s

Sunday morning I phoned Sprint customer service looking for an explanation as to why a data-only wireless modem account would be pinned with 911 fees & taxes. The general answer from the first tier of service reps was "I don’t know…". Standard customer service reps are unable to explain Additional Sprint Charges or Government Fees & Taxes. Apparently, it is standard for any Sprint account "handsets" to have 911 taxes & fees. A soft-spoken representative named Margaret recommended that I call Corp. Security at 1-800-877-7330. Unfortunately, Corp. Security dealt with fraudulent charges, personal security, and general "report a stalker" scenarios. A second representative by the name of Bernie recommended that I call the 1-866-770-6690 which handles Surcharges & Fees.

The number which dealt with Surcharges & Fees (1-866-770-6690) was of little help considering the entire process is automated with ZERO options to speak with a service professional. The automated system walks callers through three different informational recordings dealing with the 1) Federal wireless local number pooling and portability surcharge, 2) Federal E911 surcharge, and 3) Federal Universal Service Fund Surcharge. Sprint has some background on mandated charges here but provides little support for speaking to someone face-to-face concerning the charges.

Thinking "3rd time’s a charm", I phoned Sprint a third time and spoke with Franklin. Franklin informed me that the 911 fees and Federal / State taxes are a requirement and that there is nothing that can be done. However, he did mention that I am being charged 911 taxes too many times. I guess I’ll get a few cents reimbursed for the current and previous billing cycles. Unfortunately, little information was provided concerning the "Seattle City-Utility Users Surcharge".

Understanding 911 fees & taxes requirements

Taken from Support – Taxes, fees, and other charges, Enhanced 911 is:

[…] a technology that will help emergency response agencies determine the location of anyone who dials 911 from his or her enhanced wireless phone. Sprint is upgrading its network and handsets in order to meet federal requirements and ensure that the most advanced 911 technology is available to customers.

I am aware of the fact that Sprint is required [by law] to pay certain local and state taxes. However, should wireless EVDO customers be pinned to pay the same regulatory 911 fees and taxes put in place for the security of standard wireless phone customers? I’ll continue footing the bill in hopes that in the event of an accident, I can wave my EVDO modem in the air in order for emergency personnel to pinpoint my exact location after I dial-out. [digg this]

Discuss - 17 Comments

  1. Wow, that is horrible. Paying $5.00 for something that you can’t use really sucks. I hope you’ll get some benefit out of it one day…(laughs). Great informative read. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Myke says:

    Ha! Don’t you just love the run-around when trying to get a hold of someone that can answer a question beyond “How many minutes do I have left?” Oye, customer service gives me a headache.

  3. Nick says:

    That sounds bogus to me. I’m not sure how the rest of your Sprint experience has been, but I can tell you mine was less than pleasant.

  4. Arnold says:

    Thanks for sharing Derek. This just teaches us (consumers) to more carefully check our monthly bills. You will never know if/when you get overcharged, unless you do so otherwise.

  5. Hi Has anyone been able to determine what the “city utility users surcharge” is on a cell phone bill. ATT wasn’t sure , just read something that wasn’t really an exp[lanation. City of Seattle Utilities Department didn’t know now did the City Finance Dedpartment.

  6. Zacharias says:

    Sprint’s recently rolled out an all-one-can-eat combo that includes using a EVDO device unlimited-like, in addition to go-fourteenyearoldgirl nutso unlimited calling and SMS. I think it’s around ~$120 (mileage varies by market), and this may save you a few bones versus paying sprint (or someone else) for a non-bundled plan.

    Some unscrupulous folks have found using electronic billing + moving the billing address to somewhere with no local/state cell taxes (AZ, don’t quote me on that) can eliminate some of those pesky nickel-and-dime fees you’re incurring, as well.

  7. jdoc says:

    I think Sprint is required by law to charge that just because it’s a telecommunications company.
    It could also be that all data cards have E911 Triangulation in them, which is still a form of 9-1-1 but without voice. It is used in extreme cases (when a person goes missing, for example), with a judge’s approval they can pinpoint your location.

    Still sucks to pay for that, tho.

  8. Zacharias says:

    They’re required to pay based on subscribers. They’re not required to charge you for that. They could just as easily call it “the cost of doing business,” but instead, you get yet another (passed along) cellphone misc charge.

  9. […] 911 and City-Utility Surcharge On A Data-Only EVDO Card 13 06 2007 Derek Punsalan noticed this on his monthly bill. […]

  10. Eric says:

    I noticed that on this month’s bill those excess charges that you mention are gone. I tried to call Sprint today to have them remove the charges from last month’s bill (the only one that has had them) and I got a recording that they could not take my call at this time, please call back later. Great customer service, huh? So I called AMEX and disputed the $3.64 overcharge. It’ll cost Spring $50 just to answer the dispute — even if I end up paying the $3.64 (and I agree, it should not have been levied), I’ll have some satisfaction.

  11. Chance says:

    I have 15 years experience in state and local taxes. I can’t explain nor excuse the poor customer service in trying to understand your taxes/fees. However, living in the great state of Washington, you should know that your government is “grandfathered” and can and does continue to impose all it taxes and fees on data and internet access. The Seattle Utility Users fee is the gross receipts tax the imposes on ALL revenue. The 911 fees are debatable, however, many times the governments gives little or no guidance on how to apply their anitquated tax laws to new services and technologies. The states and cities are particularly horrible in their administration of telecom taxes. You live in one of the highest telecom taxing states in the country. And if a telecom carrier doesn’t tax something the way the govt auditor likes – the carrier ends up getting hammered with assessments. You should really be pissed off at your own government. Hope you have great roads and infrastructure there – you are paying a mighty big sum for it.

  12. Derek says:

    Thanks for the thorough explanation Chance. Somewhat of an update to the original post, but a representative from Sprint’s tax department did get in contact with me about this issue. I was actually credited for 911 taxes incurred during each prior month. Not having any real use for an EVDO modem now, I requested to close my account (expecting to stomach the ETF). Fortunately, Sprint waived the $200 fee – only requesting that I pay the current month over the phone.

  13. Susan says:

    An explanation of the Utility Users Surcharge is at the following web address along with some history.


    From what I have read, it might be time to “refresh” the people on the committee involved. One could almost believe there’s something else going on below the surface based on the previous corrective actions taken.

  14. Gary Moulton says:

    I had a Sprint PC Broadband account and was never charged anything other than the starndard monthly fee. I switched to Verizon and now use their USB card to get on the Internet and they are charging federal, and city fees.

    Ironic when I called them they said they charge that on all mobile phone numbers. I said then give me a non-mobile number. No reply.

    I intend to argue with Verizon as you do not have to pay phone usage fees and taxes for an ISP. Be it cable or Dial Up or DSL.

    I think they are wrong and Sprint is obvious inconsistent. Verizon I will have to try to pin them down.


  15. JC says:

    I agree with jdoc.

    If a person, who uses a mini-laptop with the EVDO, goes missing, the police will ask the 911 PSAP authority to help triangulate the laptop’s location. The PSAP technician will contact Sprint’s cell tower operators to locate the laptop. From the 911’s technician’s point of view, the EVDO is no different from a CDMA phone that has GPS turned off.

  16. JC says:

    To make my point clear. I state that EVDO customers should be charged with the 911 taxes for the reason I stated in my previous comment.

    When a person is missing, the EVDO card is an alternate to a CDMA cell phone for tracking.