Klobuchar says it's time for a consumer's bill of rights
BY DEBRA O'CONNOR
Text message to Congress: Cell phone users get angry when their contracts are extended two years each time they change their plan. Irritated when they're stuck with the plan even if the cell phone doesn't work in their house. Aghast when they have to pay the full termination fee with only a few months left on a two-year plan.
Consumer dissatisfaction with wireless services prompted Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., last week to introduce the Cell Phone Consumer Empowerment Act.
Their bill would, among other things, require companies to pro-rate early termination fees and prevent them from extending a consumer's contract without the consumer's agreement. It also would require maps detailed enough to show whether service is available in the consumer's home.
Klobuchar said she hears a lot of complaints from constituents and believes the cell phone industry is not policing itself well enough, so she decided it's time for federal regulation.
"We have to get consumer-friendly rules," she said. "It's a problem that needs a practical solution."
Her bill should have cell phone users dialing their U.S. senators to voice support.
In the 2007 Minnesota Legislature, a similar cell phone reform bill was initiated by Attorney General Lori Swanson after her consumer division received thousands of complaints. In March, the Watchdog wrote about the bill and highlighted some readers' problems. Members of House committees heard cell phone horror stories from citizens and the measure passed the necessary committees. It was held from a House floor vote while waiting for the Senate companion bill to catch up.
But the cell phone bill was never heard in the Senate. Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee Chairwoman Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solom, DFL-Duluth, said she didn't schedule hearings because the bill was controversial - it was fervently opposed by the cell phone industry.
She said she asked sponsors to hold hearings between the 2007 and 2008 legislative sessions "to see if they could work out most of the conflicts in it before it came back before the committee, or at least define where they couldn't find agreement."
She said she promised a hearing in the 2008 session.
No interim hearings have been held by senators, said bill author Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, but she said she thinks there may be some.
"There are a lot of practices that in my opinion are very questionable, and I think we need to put the spotlight on those issues," Olson said.
She said she was encouraged by Klobuchar's bill. "There is a very limited amount that we can do at the state level compared to what they can do at the federal level," Olson said. "(The industry) is exempt from a lot of state regulations."
Klobuchar's bill would allow state law to be harsher than federal law, and the attorney general said that's one reason the issue must be considered at the state level, too. In Swanson's estimation, the practices of some companies amount to consumer fraud.
The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, which represents the wireless communication industry, is critical of Klobuchar's bill. The group says it is unnecessary and contends contract-related complaints to the FCC are dropping while the number of cell phone users is rising.
"This is hardly evidence of an industry in need of regulation," the association said in a statement.
At least one wireless carrier has preempted some of the proposed regulations. Within the past year, Verizon Wireless has begun offering a 30-day free trial; if within that time a customer decides to switch to a different carrier, Verizon will take the equipment back and pay for the calls. Its early termination fee now drops $5 per month of service, to a minimum of $55.
Those customer-friendly changes haven't hurt their business, said Verizon spokesman David Clevenger. In fact, he said, because "they don't feel quite so trapped with us ... it makes them feel better about us."