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Opt-In Wireless Directory Advances in Senate

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee narrowly approved legislation Wednesday intended to protect wireless customers from having their cellular numbers listed without their consent in a proposed national E411 directory.

Led by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), five of the country's six largest cellular carriers are planning a wireless directory to be rolled out early next year. According to the CTIA, the program requires consumers to opt-in to the system and there will be no charge to be either listed or unlisted in the directory.

Despite the CTIA's assurances of privacy protections and an opt-in regime, the committee voted 12-10 to approve the Wireless 411 Privacy Act (S. 1963). Sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the legislation now goes to the Senate for a full vote.

"This bill is very, very straightforward. It basically says if there is going to be a wireless directory, then every cell phone user has to approve being listed in that directory," Boxer said.

Boxer expressed concern about cell phone contracts that currently allow for a customer's number to be listed in a directory. Although the CTIA said new contracts do not have that provision, Boxer questioned the status of existing contracts.

"[Carriers] say they've seen the light, they have a new contract and new language is now operable. Well and good, but the old contract is still in effect," Boxer said. "If we wait until chaos breaks out, I hate to see what will happen."

Several senators on the panel, though, questioned the need for federal legislation, saying the intensely competitive wireless industry would not risk losing customers by releasing numbers without consent.

"There's 180 wireless providers competing in this country and 93 percent of all Americans live in markets with four or more wireless providers," Sen. George Allen (R-VA) said. "[If one company] releases numbers, you just switch to another." At a hearing on the bill Tuesday afternoon, Allen said, "Each customer should have the right to decide if they want to be part of a directory."

Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) said the legislation was a solution in search of a problem, stressing CTIA's pledge to make the directory opt-in in the first place.

CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent weighed in after the vote in a prepared statement: "Fire, ready, aim is the approach the Senate Commerce Committee took today on legislating Wireless 411 service. This is a service that has yet to be introduced." At the Wednesday hearing, Largent called the bill needless.

The Specter-Boxer bill has received the support of both the Consumers Union and AARP. In a recent AARP survey, only five percent of cell phone users over the age of 65 said they would not want their numbers listed in a wireless phone directory. Among all cell phone users, according to AARP, nine out of ten said they consider the lack of a wireless directory a positive.

"Cell phone subscribers have many incentives to keep their numbers private," David Certner, director of federal affairs for AARP, said in a statement. "Wireless service providers, unlike their landline counterparts, charge for incoming as well as outgoing calls."

In the House, similar legislation drafted by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) is expected to get a hearing next week in the Energy and Commerce Committee.