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Cell carriers fined over missed e911 deadlines

Feds slap $2.83 million in fees on Sprint Nextel, Alltel and U.S. Cellular in a move designed to demonstrate the importance of location-sensitive phones for mobile subscribers.

Federal regulators late on Thursday slapped three wireless firms, including No. 3 operator Sprint Nextel, with a total of $2.83 million in fines for not meeting a long-passed deadline for equipping subscribers with enhanced 911 service.

The Federal Communications Commission had set a December 31, 2005 date by which all mobile carriers had to ensure that 95 percent of their subscribers had location-sensitive handsets--that is, those that allow emergency responders to pinpoint a caller's location upon connection to the 911 switchboard.

Sprint Nextel and large regional operators Alltel Corp. and U.S. Cellular Corp. "failed to meet this critical deadline by a significant margin, despite the clear requirements of the commission and the needs of their consumers," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a statement (PDF).

In fact, Sprint Nextel recorded only an 81 percent penetration rate and, according to the FCC, still has not reached the required levels. It was hit with the largest fine, at $1.33 million.

Alltel, which admitted it had reached a penetration rate of only 84 percent by the deadline and did not achieve the target until 17 months later, received a $1 million fine. U.S. Cellular, which reported about an 89 percent penetration rate as of the deadline and reached full compliance eight months later, was ordered to pay $500,000. Each of the companies had applied for deadline waivers but had their petitions denied in January of this year.

Martin said he considers "facilitating the ability of the public safety community to help those in need" among his agency's highest priorities and said enforcement actions like Thursday's are "a valuable and necessary tool in achieving this mission."

Each of the companies now has 30 days in which to pay up or to petition for the fee to be reduced--or dropped entirely.

Update at 3:05 p.m. PDT: Apparently, compliance with the FCC's rules relies in part on the ability of wireless carriers to force their subscribers--through incentives and otherwise--to switch to compatible phones, which .

Alltel spokesman Andrew Moreau said his company "took extraordinary measures to convince our customers to swap phones, (but) many just didn't want to make the change. We believe the FCC's timetable for compliance may have underestimated customers' willingness to exchange phones." He declined to comment specifically on the FCC order because the company was still reviewing it.

Sprint Nextel spokeswoman Stephanie Walsh said her firm has faced an extra setback. In July 2004, a "software glitch" rendered the location-tracking capabilities useless in 4.7 million Motorola handsets using then-Nextel's iDEN network. The pre-merger Sprint CDMA network, she added, was poised to be the first carrier to reach the 95 percent mark.

Right now, the carrier has reached 94.7 percent compliance, Walsh said, but she declined to comment specifically on what the company plans to do about the fine, except to "recognize" it has been levied. She also said that no other wireless carrier met the December 31, 2005 deadline--although she acknowledged her company was "farther behind" than the others.

U.S. Cellular representatives did not respond immediately to requests for comment.