by Brad Swenson

Three sessions today will probe telecommunications concerns in northern Minnesota, including cell phone use and broadband Internet.

That comes on top of a forum Monday on a bill authored by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., calling for a “bill of rights” for cell phone users.

State Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, used a Beltrami DFL fund-raiser Monday night to tell Democrats that she, along with Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, were part of Monday’s forum and that Sailer has a Minnesota House panel in Park Rapids, Itasca State Park and Bagley today.
Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, talks Monday at a Beltrami DFL fund-raiser in Bemidji about three hearings her House Telecommunications Regulation and Infrastructure Finance Division is holding today in House 2B, plus her testimony Monday at U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s hearing on the Minnesota

“Northern Minnesota was very well represented at the forum,” Sailer said about her and Olson’s participation in the Golden Valley, Minn., forum which also included industry experts.

Earlier this month, Klobuchar introduced the Cell Phone Consumer Empowerment Act aimed at empowering the 200 million cell phone customers nationwide to make informed choices about wireless service that best fits their needs and budget.

Klobuchar serves on the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over telecommunications issues.

Sailer sits on the state House Telecommunications Regulation and Infrastructure Finance Division, which is holding today’s hearings.

Olson has authored a bill on consumer rights for cell phones, Sailer said.

The hearings today are 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Hubbard County Courthouse in Park Rapids, 2-3:15 p.m. at Itasca State Park Douglas Lodge and 4-6 p.m. at the Clearwater County Courthouse in Bagley. The Park Rapids and Bagley hearings are for primarily for the public, while the Itasca State Park meeting involves government officials, especially emergency responders.

“If you have any issues about broadband access, cell phone — not only access but consumer rights,” they are encouraged to testify, Sailer said.

Some of the information at Klobuchar’s forum “kind of curdles the blood,” she said. Testimony included a young woman who had her cell phone bill taken automatically out of specified checking account, but the company keep drawing money out.

“They took too much and they didn’t let her know, so she started getting overdrafts,” Sailer said. Repeated calls to the cell company didn’t resolve anything. “It came down to the fact she couldn’t work anymore, she had all these lawyers and collection agents chasing her up and down because of her credit rating and her cell phone.”

One reason for the state House panel to hear from local people, she said, “is because I want to make sure that people up in this area have an opportunity to address these issues without having to drive four hours down to the Cities.”

Telecommunications is important in northern Minnesota both for public safety and economic development, Sailer said. “None of this is just a matter of making sure we can get a hold of somebody by e-mail or to pick up the kids after school.”

What the state may do will dovetail with Klobuchar’s bill, she said.

Klobuchar was joined at her forum by several state and national consumer advocates, including Olson and Sailer; Anne Boyle, Nebraska public service commissioner and board member of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners; and Prentiss Cox, a University of Minnesota law professor and consumer protection expert.

The Cell Phone Consumer Empowerment Act would require wireless service providers to share simple, clear information on their services and charges with customers before they enter into long-term contracts, according to Klobuchar. The legislation will also provide greater flexibility for consumers in canceling service contracts.

In particular, the legislation targets unreasonable early termination fees that are imposed on consumers who cancel their contracts, she said in a statement. Most cell phone subscribers are in long-term, multiyear service contracts with their providers. If they try to cancel the contract, they are required to pay special fees that can run into hundreds of dollars.

“The marketplace is supposed to provide consumers with freedom of choice,” said Klobuchar. “With cell phone service, it can seem more like indentured servitude.”

Klobuchar said her legislation will set reasonable limits on early termination fees, requiring that wireless providers pro-rate the fees based on how long the consumer has had the service before canceling the contract. For example, a consumer who exits a two-year contract after the end of the first year would have to pay only half of the fee.

“The overriding purpose of this cell phone consumer ‘bill of rights’ is to modernize the rules governing this powerful industry to ensure that consumers are getting a fair deal in the marketplace,” said Klobuchar. “The rules that applied at the infancy of cellular business are no longer relevant for what has become a powerful, multibillion-dollar industry. Cell phones are now a Main Street technology, and it’s time that they are ruled by some mainstream, consumer-friendly values.”