Group wants cell phone bill of rights

By WISPIRG staff

Consumers increasingly rely on cell phone service to meet their basic communication needs.  The use of wireless communications has skyrocketed over the past few years, jumping from approximately 24 million subscribers in 1994 to an estimated 219 million today (72% of Americans).  

Along with the growth in the industry have come consumer complaints.  In fact, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency charged with overseeing competition in the wireless industry, has received over 25,000 complaints a year for the last 3 years.

Unlike traditional phone service, wireless service is largely unregulated.  The FCC has failed to enact even the most basic consumer protection regulations, instead relying almost exclusively on competition and market forces to protect wireless subscribers. It is clear that competitive pressures alone have proven to be inadequate for ensuring that consumers are treated fairly in the wireless market place.

In survey after survey, consumers report frustration and dissatisfaction with their wireless carrier. Consumers report difficulty comparing cell phone plans because information on terms, pricing and service is not presented in a uniform manner.  Carriers often fail to clearly disclose the true cost of their plans, adding on various surcharges to consumers’ bills.  Consumers lack meaningful information about service coverage before choosing a plan.  

Consumer problems with cell phone carriers’ billing practices are the largest source of complaints filed with the FCC. Billing disputes include double billing, extra and unexplained fees, minutes charged to wrong months, and even more frustrating for consumers is the overall inability for customer service representatives to solve and or correct errors once they are identified.  Moreover, consumers who are fed up with expensive service, add-on charges, and poor coverage are often locked into long-term contracts with hefty termination fees, typically as high as $240. Making matters worse, consumers often unknowingly extend the length of their contracts when they buy a new phone or alter the number of minutes on their calling plans.

To address these problems, cell phone users need a bill of rights —  they need better disclosure regarding rates and fees, contract terms, and wireless coverage area; recourse to resolve billing disputes and errors; and less restrictive contract terms like a risk-free trial period to test a phone and service and the elimination of long term contracts.