Congress Considers Wireless Consumer Rights Bill

A House Subcommittee hearing on the issue comes at a time when U.S. consumers are increasingly frustrated by their cell phone service.
Congress could pass a consumer rights bill for cell phones.

The House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing Wednesday on consumer rights regarding mobile phones and a proposal to pass a law protecting them.

The hearing comes at a time when U.S. consumers are increasingly frustrated by their cell phone service. A recent Consumer Reports survey of 47,000 people in 20 major metropolitan areas found fewer than half were completely or very satisfied with their provider. It has been among the lowest-rated services by Consumer Reports for the past six years.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has proposed a bill that would require the Federal Communications Commission to require carriers to offer plans without early termination fees and ban fees unless they have FCC approval. The Wireless Consumer Protection and Community Broadband Empowerment Act of 2008 would also require wireless providers to offer month-long trials and provide customers with coverage maps. Finally, it would stop governments from banning municipal broadband efforts.

U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said that while cell phone adoption soars, consumers are complaining more often. He said complaints commonly center on confusing or unfair contract terms and extensions, inability to switch carriers because of high early termination fees, and poor coverage.

"These complaints, in turn, have prompted some States to pass or attempt to pass corrective legislation," he said in a statement entered into the Congressional record. "The wireless industry is then faced with regulatory regimes that vary state by state. Sometimes these state requirements conflict with each other, making uniform compliance costly and difficult."

For that reason, several wireless providers said they support federal rules, but they cautioned against over regulation that could stifle innovation.

Dingell said it is important to strike a balance, though he doesn't think that will be easy.

"The national framework must provide meaningful and enforceable consumer protections," he said. "At the same time, it must be reasonable so that industry continues to make the investments in wireless networks that have created thousands of jobs and can benefit consumers across the country." Dingell commended Markey for drafting a proposal but he indicated that the bill should be used as a starting point for negotiations.

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