http://www.topnic.com/cgi/read.cgi/t62731859 Posted on Mon, Mar. 03, 2003 Cell-phone users need a Bill of Rights By Mike Langberg Mercury News Cell-phone users of the nation unite! You have nothing to lose but your lack of rights! Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., this week introduced legislation he grandly calls The Cell Phone Users Bill of Rights, and I find myself agreeing with just about every aspect of his proposal. I've been attempting for several years to offer advice on how to pick the best wireless phone carrier and the best service plan. In all that time, I've been frustrated at how difficult it is for consumers to make informed choices. Schumer seems to fully grasp the problem and is advocating common-sense solutions. Sadly, there's little chance his bill will become law -- at least not without major watering down, given the wireless industry's heavy spending on campaign contributions and lobbying. There are similar efforts under way in California, both at the Public Utilities Commission and in the state Legislature, with similarly dim prospects. In a speech Tuesday to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, Schumer explained his bill's three key points: â?¢ Number portability. The wireless industry has stalled for seven years in the face of federal mandates that would allow customers to keep their phone numbers when they switch from one carrier to another. The technology to make this happen is already in place, but the companies are fighting on every front because they don't want to make it easier for subscribers to defect. ``Imagine if you were a small-business owner that had printed hundreds of business cards for employees, all containing cell-phone numbers, and your employees had in turn distributed these cards to potential customers,'' Schumer said. ``If you wanted to switch providers because a cheaper plan that fit your company's needs was available, you could not because of the serious risk that your customers would not be able to contact you -- not to mention the expense of re-printing new business cards. . . . ``The lack of portability also makes life difficult for the individual cell user, forcing them to contact all of their friends and family to give out their new number should they choose to switch providers.'' Wireless carriers keep making vague promises that number portability is around the corner. It's time to put an end to the dithering with a federal law that sets an immediate and mandatory deadline. â?¢ Clear and consistent disclosure of contact terms. I've spent many unhappy hours poring through pages of fine print, trying to devise accurate comparisons between the rate plans of different companies. At least I get paid for doing this; consumers shouldn't have to suffer the sting of clauses hidden deep in subscriber agreements. ``By not clearly disclosing such information in an easily digestible manner, wireless providers effectively limit the basis on which competition can take place to one single factor: price,'' Schumer said. ``As a result, there is virtually no incentive to make the investments necessary to offer better service than the next guy.'' â?¢ Public information on service quality. Here's a very dark secret: The cell-phone industry pays consultants to drive around major metropolitan areas and produce extremely detailed maps showing the location of dead spots and areas with weak signals. So, the carriers themselves know where the gaps are; they just don't want to share this vital information with customers. Schumer said his bill ``will specifically tap government authorities to monitor service quality industrywide. Data will be collected and made publicly available so consumers can compare signal strength among providers, look at dropped call counts per carrier and compare dead zones across carriers.'' The wireless industry's trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association in Washington, D.C., is already gearing up to block Schumer's bill. The CTIA released a statement this week accusing Schumer of ``poisoning the competitive wireless market with unnecessary government regulations.'' I think the industry is dead wrong. Whatever the short-term costs of implementing Schumer's ideas, his bill could save the wireless industry from itself in the long run. Cell-phone users are growing increasingly unhappy with dropped calls, confusing contracts and the lack of number portability. Carriers, competing only on price, don't have the resources to fix many of these problems. Laws that compel all carriers to offer better customer service, even if there's a slight short-term increase in monthly rates, would help the industry overcome its poor reputation. Disclosing the location of dead spots could even help the industry by getting customers to pressure local government officials to approve reasonable requests for installing new cell towers. If you want to make a difference, tell your congressional representative or U.S. senators that Schumer's bill deserves their support -- even if it means losing access to the wireless industry's generous campaign checkbook.