Savannah Morning News
“Remember when you were afraid to look at your wireless bill?” asks the digital wireless service provider SunCom on its Web site.
Savannahian Gaye H. Hewitt first had that feeling when she opened her first bill from the company in December.
She had signed herself and her daughter up for a $49.99 call plan that advertised no roaming, no long distance and unlimited night and weekend minutes.
The bill was for three weeks.
Because of initial set up costs, “they told me it would be a little higher than usual,” she said.
The bill was $ 1,600.
Her daughter, who lives in Pembroke, was roaming every time she made a call, something Hewitt never expected or had been warned about.
“It’s really a fraud,” she said. “They should pay me for the trouble they’ve caused.”
Or, the company says, have a better conversation before signing up.
Karen Rountree, public relations manager for SunCom, said one of the first questions customers are asked is where, when and how they’ll be using the phone.
“It takes fully communicating on both sides to establish calling patterns,” she said.
Cell phones have gone from a brick-shaped, two-pound yuppie status symbol to today’s must-have, hide-in-the-palm communication tool.
Today there are around 167 million wireless phone subscribers in the United States, a figure that represents big bucks. The unregulated industry grows by
around $ 20 billion each year.
That lack of regulation is bad, say critics, because it means service providers are not accountable to anyone.
That same lack of regulation is good, counter industry people, beause it makes the market more competitive.
Harvey Rosenfeld, consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights, says wireless providers form “an outlaw industry.”
“It’s like the Wild West,” he said. Based in California — the only state to pass a consumer Telecommunications Bill of Rights — Rosenfeld said he thought national regulation will be the inevitable result of the Golden State legislation passed in May.
That bill requires companies to inform customers about rate increases; bill customers only for services they request; and allow consumers to drop a wireless service, without penalty, within 30 days.
Competition vs. regulation Bill Cloud, spokesman with the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs, is not so sure the nation will follow California’s suit, saying there’s no move afoot to bring legislation to Georgia.
But there are some new protections in place.
One is a voluntary code of conduct, implemented by about a dozen wireless providers, designed to help consumers “make informed choices and improve service,” according to Erin McGee, spokesperson for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. The measures were implemented in September. Like Roundtree, McGee believes competition, not regulation, is better for consumers.
Adam Goldberg, spokesman for the Consumers Union, takes a measured view of the new code.
“I don’t want to say it’s a bad thing, but it doesn’t go far enough,” Goldberg said. “It’s voluntary. It needs to be enforceable.”
McGee said while the code may be altered and added to in the future, she did not think her group will ever make it mandatory.
“We’re such a competitive industry,” she said. “Today, at least 90 percent of consumers have a choice of three or more service providers to choose from in their area. Making it mandatory would hurt competition.”
The three signed a deal in July with those states. The safeguards are scheduled to be in place by November.
Under the plan, customers must be provided with more detailed coverage maps; get a two-week grace period to end service without penalty; and receive full disclosure of service contract rates and conditions. Their marketing must also be more specific about service costs and limits.
And what’s behind these protective measures?
Calling for change Sheila Adkins, spokesperson for the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Va., said 18,323 consumers wrote letters of complaint to local BBBs last year.
That number is second only to complaints about auto dealers, which generated 23,729 letters.
An audit of complaints to BBBs nationally found the top three issues are: billing problems; customer service quality; and misrepresentation by sales representatives.
Those findings jibe with the experience of local business woman, Susan Isaacs.
She first signed up for Cingular Wireless in 2001.
Initially, everything was fine. Then she decided to add a second phone to the plan.
That’s when things went south.
First, Cingular got her address wrong several times. Then they signed her up for the wrong plan.
To make matter worse, they charged her a cancellation fee for the plan she’d never asked for in the first place.
Isaacs found herself constantly on the phone with Cingular trying to sort things out. Even those calls weren’t cheap.
“And every call takes half an hour, and I’m sitting watching billable time go by,” she said.
Isaacs asked to speak to supervisors.
She asked the company to review the tapes of all her previous conversations where she tried to get things straightened out.
Earlier this year, with a year left on the contract, she decided to call the whole thing off.
“And I’m thinking reasonably — which is my first mistake — ‘my business is based on getting my clients’ trust and respect which I earn through giving good service.”‘ Trust and respect, though are one thing. Money is another.
There would be no service disconnection without a $ 200 cancellation fee, the Cingular representative said.
Isaacs believes the two-year contract protects the service provider. Once it’s signed, she said, the company doesn’t have to perform to keep the customer’s business.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Issacs said. “I’m a hostage in this situation unless I have money to blow — which I do not.”
What she did have was time to think. Isaacs was struck by the amount of time she’d spent on the phone trying to sort out the account.
To her way of thinking, Cingular owed her money.
So she sent them a bill for $ 600 and attached a letter to Cingular‘s president saying she would pay the cancellation fee only after they paid her.
Dawn Benton, Cingular Wireless spokeswoman, couldn’t comment on the specifics of Issacs case or payment letter.
She did say the company has rolled out several new initiatives this year to improve customer service.
“We recognize that our customers have a lot of questions, and we’re fine tuning the process,” she said.
Isaacs, like most working people, can’t do business without a cell phone. And, as a single woman, she doesn’t want to be driving around without one in case of trouble.
“The cell phone is marketing itself as a utility. You know, ‘you have to have one,’ ” she said. “But regular utilities have to live up to their promises.”
Mobile phone companies, in her opinion, don’t.
“No one can control them,” she said. “They answer to nobody.”
“It’s essential that we find a way to get better service at a better price,” he said. “And we’re going to continue to fight for common-sense procedures.”
Some companies now offer a 14-day trial period.
The Consumers Union would like to see that extended to the end of the first billing cycle, so consumers can test coverage and determine which specific services drive their bills higher.
That’s the sort of approach Hewitt would have appreciated before she got that $1,600 bill.
Clearer future Despite these problems, some consumer advocates think the tide is turning.
Phone number portability — being allowed to take your phone number to another service provider — is a sign consumers are starting to win some basic rights in the world of mobile phones.
Pricing on deals has improved, too.
Goldberg believes companies have realized they have to improve service if they want to compete.
But, he said, there’s still a long way to go.
Bills need to be clearer.
Maps need to more honestly reflect coverage areas.
“If you look at coverage maps, you’ll see whole states bathed in red, but we know that’s not true,” he said.
“We’re not looking for them to pinpoint the entire planet, but they can do better.”
McGee said the problem with maps is that the instant they’re printed, they’re out of date since towers go up at a rate of 50 per day.
So what’s a consumer to do?
Think — and research — before you sign.
When it comes to getting a wireless plan, don’t base your choice on a phone with all the bells and whistles.
Make your choice based on the plan, not how hip the tool is.
“And ask people you know who they’re with,” he said.
“After all, they’re using a phone in your area.”
Adkins advises consumers not to sign a contract until they’ve read — and understood — it.
And don’t be shy about asking questions.
“Find someone at the company who will take the time to explain,” she said. “Consumers need to know their billing period, roaming charges, long distance and overtime. Also what’s included and what will cost extra.”
Finally, go to your local Better Business Bureau office to see which local vendors have a good rating. Dial with them, she advised.
So far, so good.
“It’s not all on one bill,” she said.
“But I can live with that.”
Got a complaint? Go to http://www.EscapeCellHell.org
Canadian Reginald Aubrey Fessenden dreamed of wireless communication. He made the first wireless phone call at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve in 1906.
He wasn’t calling for help, the way 200,000 wireless customers do today. He took a more musical approach, playing a recording of Handel’s Largo. He then followed up with “Oh Holy Night” on the violin, singing as he played. Finally, from his office in Brant Rock, Mass., he wished the wireless operators on several United Fruit Co. ships in the Atlantic a Merry Christmas.
His mother told him there was no future in wireless communication. AT&T decided his system, while revolutionary, was not refined enough for commercial telephone service. So they didn’t purchase the patents.
Fessenden died in near poverty.
THE NEXT BIG ISSUE: The wireless directory. What you need to know:
–No directory will be printed.
–The directory will only be accessible by dialing 411.
–No number will be listed without the express consent of the subscriber.
–There will be no charge, whether you are listed or not.
–The wireless phone industry will not sell the numbers to telemarketers or other third parties.
15 QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE SIGNING A(NOTHER) CONTRACT :
1. Exactly when are night, weekend, peak, off-peak and “anytime” minutes?
2. Exactly where is “home,” “region” and “nation”?
3. Does nationwide mean the carrier’s national network only?
4. Who pays for incoming calls?
5. What is the price per minute if I exceed the limit on my plan?
6. How much are roaming charges?
7. Is long distance included?
8. What happens to unused minutes?
9. What happens to fractions of minutes?
10. Can I use my phone with another carrier?
11. What exactly are “Additional Charges”?
12. What are the charges to start and end service?
13. Does this phone also work in the analog mode?
14. Can you give me an estimate of the taxes, fees and surcharges with typical usage of this phone?
15. Is there a “test drive” period? How long?
VOLUNTARY CONSUMER CODE :
1. Disclose rates and terms of service.
2. Make maps of approximate coverage available.
3. Provide contract terms and confirm changes in service.
4. Allow a trial period of not less than 14 days.
5. Provide specific disclosures in advertising.
6. Separately identify carrier charges from taxes on billing statements.
7. Provide customers the right to terminate service if the contract terms change.
8. Provide a toll-free number to contact provider during normal business hours.
9. Respond to consumer inquiries and complaints received from government agencies within 30 days.
10. Abide by policies for protection of customer privacy.
Who’s honoring it: ALLTEL, AT&T Wireless, Cellular South, Cincinnati Bell Wireless, Cingular Wireless, First Cellular of Southern, Illinois New-Cell, NEXTEL, Southern LINC, Sprint, T-Mobile USA, Triton PCS, US Cellular, Verizon Wireless.