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Proposed Legislation Challenges E411 Promises

Two U.S. congressmen said Wednesday wireless carriers originally opposed opt-in requirements for a national wireless assistance directory, wanting instead to charge their customers to be unlisted.

Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Penn.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) are the authors of legislation aimed at protecting wireless customers from having their cellular numbers listed without their express consent in a proposed national E411 directory.

"We were told that we were interfering with business," Pitts said. "We were told that making this directory all opt-in was unworkable -- that the companies own the cell numbers, not individuals. We were also told that they would not make any money if we told them they couldn't charge to be unlisted," Pitts continued. "We were told basically that the companies reserve the right to do anything they wanted."

The bill also says cell phone subscribers can't be charged if they request to be unlisted. Cingular, AT&T Wireless, Nextel, Sprint and T-Mobile plan to roll out the directory next year.

"The wireless industry originally told us that asking consumers' permission before listing them in a 411 database would be too onerous," Markey said. "They said that the provision in our bill that prohibited wireless companies from charging new fees to consumers who wanted to remain unreachable or unlisted was unfair."

As it did last week before a Senate hearing on the same legislation, the wireless industry said its plans for the new directory now require consumers to opt-in to the system, and there will be no charge to be either listed or unlisted in the directory.

"If a customer chooses not to be included, they will not have to do anything. The wireless 411 directory database will only include numbers that customers affirmatively add to the list. All other numbers are automatically excluded," Steve Largent, president and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), told the lawmakers. "In addition, unlike the current wireline directory system, all of the national wireless carriers have indicated they will not charge customers who elect to remain unlisted."

Largent said the database of wireless numbers will not be sold to third parties nor will it be available anywhere on the Internet.

But Pitts said consumers deserve more than "promises" from the cellular carriers.

"There is nothing here to prevent them [carriers] from dumping everyone's number into this nationwide directory," Pitts said. "A promise is good. Even a letter to the committee is good. But it's not enough."

Pitts said a future decision to break a promise "won't be made on the basis of a letter to a few politicians. It will be made according to a business plan ... My gut is to oppose more regulation. But there are certain values worth protecting for consumers -- privacy is one of them."

Plans for a wireless directory began more than two years ago and was spurred on by a Small Business Administration survey that said wireless services are now used by 73 percent of all small businesses.

"Unfortunately, those small businessmen and women who use their wireless phones as their primary business line currently have no other choice but to pay to have their number listed in the wireline directory if they have that option at all, which many do not," Largent said.

The CTIA contends the legislation is unnecessary and will lead to unintended consequences.

"The wireless industry has a proven track record of protecting our customers' privacy and we have made a concerted effort while developing this directory assistance service to safeguard our subscribers' personal information," Largent said. "It is extremely premature for Congress to issue a government mandate on a service that has yet to be made available to our customers."