Cell phone bill of rights in the works

The bill was sponsored by Minn. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and W.Va. Sen. Jay Rockafeller.

by Liz Riggs

Coffman Union might be the bustling center of the University’s Minneapolis campus, but when it comes to cell phone service, the Minneapolis student union is anything but active.

“Nobody gets service in Coffman,” first-year student Sebastian Marquez said.

Chris Lucia, who’s also a first-year student, said he’s generally satisfied with his cell phone provider, T-Mobile, but “the service is kind of weak.”

Under new federal legislation proposed earlier this month, cell phone carriers would be required to provide consumers – like Marquez and Lucia – with more detailed information about coverage gaps and dropped calls.

The push for cell phone carriers to give consumers more comprehensive service area maps is just one of the elements of the Cell Phone Consumer Empowerment Act of 2007, a bill introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

The drafted legislation, promoted as a “Cell Phone Bill of Rights,” aims to provide wireless users with more protection from what Klobuchar calls a “powerful industry” with “outdated rules.”

At a public forum Monday in Golden Valley, Klobuchar said the fact that there are now more than 200 million cell phone subscribers proves the devices are no longer just luxury items.

“Cell phones have moved well beyond Wall Street to Main Street,” she said. “Average middle class people have cell phones.”

“Especially for many young people, (a cell phone is) their only phone,” Klobuchar said.

Although we live in a country where consumers should have freedom of choice, Klobuchar said “with cell phone contracts, it can seem more like indentured servitude.”

University law professor and nationally recognized consumer protection expert Prentiss Cox was an invited speaker at Monday’s forum.

Cox said when products are particularly complex and there’s a lot of money to be made in selling them, you can expect that they will give rise to a lot of consumer complaints.

“The marketing is hard to figure out, the bills are hard to figure out and the contracts are especially hard to figure out,” Cox said.

Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, too has a hard time understanding her cell phone bill. “I don’t really understand, and I don’t think most Americans do either,” she said.

Among the provisions in the Cell Phone Bill of Rights is the idea that consumers should have itemized bills without unauthorized fees or charges.

The act also states that consumers should have a right to limited prorated “early termination fees.”

Under a prorated system, a consumer who decides to opt out of a cell phone contract prematurely would pay an early-termination fee based on how far along they were in their plan when they ended service.

For example, someone who was midway through her contract when service was terminated might only have to pay half of what she would pay if she opted out after the first month.

cell phone bill of rights passed in 2007

Cell phone users have a right to:
ï Limited, prorated “Early Termination Fees”
ï Detailed service area maps and disclosure of dropped calls and coverage gaps
ï Full disclosure of all contract terms and conditions
ï Initial 30 days to cancel contract without penalty and for any reason
ï Itemized bills with no unauthorized fees or charges
ï Point-of-sale notice of any contract extension, with right to cancel within 30 days
ï Written 30-day notice of any change in rates or terms
ï Opportunity to cancel contract without penalty if being deployed overseas for U.S. military service

While a Cell Phone Bill of Rights might sound promising to students, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, which represents a number of major cell phone companies, has made it clear they are no fans of the proposed legislation.

Calling the act “unnecessary” and “potentially harmful to consumers,” association spokesman Joe Farren said his organization opposes the legislation.

On the subject of early termination fees, Farren said while prepaid cell phone service exists as an alternative to a long-term contract, “85 percent of people choose the contract because of the tremendous savings that you can get through the contract. An early termination fee only becomes an issue when the consumer decides to renege on a contract they voluntarily signed.”

He said the extreme competition that exists within the industry guarantees that the market responds to consumers’ needs.

Farren cited the extended no-risk trial periods that some companies are already offering and the prorated early termination fees that several carriers, including Verizon Wireless, have already put into effect, as proof that the industry doesn’t need additional regulation.

“Every carrier is licensed and regulated by the federal government,” Farren said. “Let’s not go overboard.”

In a statement on its Web site dated Sept. 6, the association said “The Klobuchar-Rockefeller bill Ö if enacted, threatens to increase the cost of wireless service and reduce the number of choices available to American consumers.”

Skimming through a handout on the proposed Cell Phone Bill of Rights, child psychology senior and T-Mobile subscriber Fathiya Jeylani said the act could provide some added protection for cell phone customers, but certainly wouldn’t be beneficial for the cell phone carriers.

“For consumers, I think it would be helpful, but not for T-Mobile or the (other) phone companies,” she said.

“I think this is how the phone companies make profit,” Jeylani said, referring to stipulations such as early termination fees.

Jeylani was skeptical about how companies would be able to comply with the portion of the legislation requiring them to provide potential customers with detailed disclosure of dropped calls and coverage gaps.

She said it was unrealistic to think that a carrier could tell a potential customer exactly where they might encounter service interruptions, based on that person’s specific activities.

“How about Coffman Union?” Jeylani asked. “They wouldn’t be able to tell you ‘don’t go to the ground floor (because you won’t get service there).’ I think that would be hard to map out.”