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Judge rejects call to hear Fairbanks 911 case in federal court

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 27, 2014

A dispute over 911 phone services between the Fairbanks North Star Borough and Alaska Communications Systems is headed back to state court following a ruling by a federal judge Friday.

Alaska Communications argued that it should be a federal case but District Court Judge Ralph Beistline said that "the facts alleged in the complaint do not state a federal cause of action."

The borough alleges that about 4,000 Fairbanks residents may have inaccurate addresses in the 911 system because they have moved or changed numbers with the carrier -- still commonly known among Alaskans as ACS -- since May. The list of wrong addresses grows by about 1,000 a month, the borough claims.

"Every one of those situations is a potential health or safety disaster waiting to happen. The problem gets worse every day," the borough lawsuit said.

The borough and the phone company are battling over the terms and conditions under which updated phone listings are to be made and corrected in the Fairbanks 911 system, which the borough took over in the spring.

The borough argues that Alaska Communications has failed to deliver the updated subscriber list information to keep the 911 system current over the last four months. Without updated information, emergency dispatchers can't tell the exact location of some landline calls, which is essential in cases where a caller is unable to speak on the phone, the borough charges.

"Lives and property are at risk," the borough told Beistline.

Alaska Communications denied the borough's claims that the company is putting lives at risk or acting inappropriately. If the borough wants it to process the updated phone information, the company said, it deserves to be compensated for the work. The company said the legal question is whether the borough or Alaska Communications should pay for the service.

"The entire dispute is not about whether the FNSB would be able to conduct its E911 system, but about which party would pay a subcontractor for the services that the FNSB claims ACS is refusing to provide," the company said in a court filing. The company said that if the borough would pay a subcontractor the fee that ACS has been paying in the past, "the FNSB would have the data it needs."

The military is already doing so at Eielson Air Force Base and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska Communications said.

The borough filed an informal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission in July, and in August it sought an injunction pending an FCC decision. ACS attempted to move it to federal court, an effort blocked by Beistline.

The borough contends that GCI has provided the updated numbers at no charge, but ACS wants to collect a fee and the parties disagree on the amount. The borough charged that Alaska Communications provides the updated numbers to the Kenai Peninsula Borough for free, though the company hopes to start collecting a fee for doing so.

"Through hard experience ACS has discovered that the costs of providing what FNSB is demanding at no charge are unsustainable," Alaska Communications engineer William Merry said in a court filing. That is why the company has notified Kenai of its "intent to suspend the provision of those services in the absence of compensation."

Merry said the company hired a subcontractor in 2005 to process the data when ACS ran the 911 system in Fairbanks. When the borough took over the 911 service last spring, the phone company was still paying that subcontractor.

Kenai has half as many phone lines as Fairbanks and it costs Alaska Communications about $100,000 a year to provide the service, Merry said. The action regarding Fairbanks is not discriminatory because "ACS is seeking to treat the two boroughs the same."

In a separate issue, Merry found fault with the way the borough implemented the 911 system, saying that emergency calls for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fort Wainwright and Fairbanks International Airport have to be manually rerouted by a city dispatcher who dials a seven-digit number. Those entities get the calls without an automatic number identification attached to them, Merry said. He said that diminishes the service to a technology that was available in the 1970s.

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