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Hate Your Cell Phone No More

The Cell Phone Empowerment Act of 2007, introduced to the Senate on September 7th by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), aimed to instill more flexibility and fairness into an industry notorious for its imperious treatment of customers. Now it seems some of the big cellular companies are aggressively fighting to undercut the bill, which could both help and harm consumers.

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On October 16, statistics that indicate “just nine for every one million subscribers” registered contract-related complaints between 2003 and 2006. As ArsTechnica comments, that data seems contradictory to the findings of other independent research firms and to the common knowledge of most customers.

It is true that the bill could end up passing on more costs to customers. Pro-rating early termination charges, for example, will reduce barriers to switching carriers more frequently. Because, by law, customers are allowed to take their numbers with them, this represents a potentially significant increase in costs for mobile companies; the more often people switch, the more often company personnel have to engage in the technical process of converting numbers to new carriers, which consumes time and resources.

Likewise, if these barriers to switching are reduced and companies are required to produce accurate dropped-call numbers, you can bet that there will be a wave of switchers every time the new statistics are released. That kind of rapid movement probably scares more than a few mobile carrier executives, who can see their networks becoming increasingly fragile with more unpredictable traffic.

Furthermore, the “hodge-podge of fees” that Rockefeller calls deceptive can easily be recycled into higher rate plans and otherwise-concealed surcharges. The cost of adapting (or, outsmarting) the regulations to maintain the same level of revenue will surely be subsidized by customers in one way or another.

There are also problems with the proposed “unlocking” of phones, which could retard the development of mobile technology. If Apple hadn’t partnered exclusively with AT&T, for example, it’s likely the iPhone wouldn’t have proprietary abilities like Visual Voicemail — it takes symbiotic network capabilities and software to make many cell phone features viable. Not surprisingly, commentators, depending on their political stripes, have stepped in to decry the regulation of the industry, some going so far as to call the bill “balderdash“.

Whatever the side effects of the Cell Phone Empowerment Bill, its passing could introduce a fundamentally different understanding of mobile phone use to the American user. Much the way that pre-paid services divorced the idea of mobile phones from commitment, new customer service initiatives have the potential to instill in mobile phone customers a new attitude: the relative indifference they feel toward their chosen ISP or computer manufacturer. And while indifference is short of the “empowerment” the new bill promises, it’s certainly better than malevolence — and that might be an improvement worth making, despite the costs.

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