VZ Wireless Slams National 411 Directory

WASHINGTON — Verizon Wireless, the nation’s largest wireless carrier, clashed with other cellular carriers on Tuesday, telling a U.S. Senate committee that a proposed national wireless telephone directory is a “terrible idea” and should be scrapped.

A working group of national wireless carriers organized by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) began planning the directory in February 2002. Proponents of the directory, including Cingular, AT&T Wireless , Nextel , Sprint and T-Mobile, claim consumers will have to opt-in to the system
and privacy safeguards will be maintained.

Those assurances failed to convince Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who introduced the Wireless 411 Privacy Act (S. 1963) requiring any existing cellular customer or new customer be allowed to keep a number out of the directory for free.

“If the purpose of today’s hearing is to determine that the wireless directory can protect the consumer’s privacy, my answer is no,” Verizon Wireless President and CEO Dennis F. Strigl told the Senate Commerce Committee. “It’s a controversial subject not only with our customers but within the industry itself. I submit it would be far better for the industry to abandon this needless idea.”

Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA, said the Specter-Boxer bill was well intentioned but a “solution in search of a problem,” saying the legislation is unnecessary.

“I have a burning question in my chest: Why does a competitive, vibrant industry have to come before Congress to ask permission to offer a new service to its own customers?” Largent said. “Is it a presumption in Washington that the government cares more about wireless customers than carriers do? I say no.”

In his prepared remarks, Largent wrote that it is “extremely premature for Congress to issue a government mandate on a service that has yet to be made available to our customers.”

Patrick Cox, CEO of Portland, Ore.-based Qsent, which has been selected by the cellular carrier working group to be the aggregator of the national wireless directory, told the committee the legislation “outlines fixes to problems that do not exist and will not exist, and in doing so, will restrict consumer choice in unintended ways.”

According to Cox, the national directory will be dynamic privacy-protected database accessible only in real-time for each 411 inquiry by the operator. He said if an individual chooses not to opt into the service, the listing would not be made available in the database. If the consumer makes no decision to opt-in, the individual is automatically opted-out.

“All the promises to the contrary, our names represent a lot of dollar signs and that’s all well and good if we opt in,” Boxer said. “We already know what goes on in the business world, it’s the bottom line.”

Senators George Allen (R-VA) and John Ensign (R-NV) said they would be reluctant to support the Specter-Boxer bill.

“Each customer should have the right to decide if they want to be part of a directory. I’m hesitant to support legislation that makes choices for consumers,” Allen said.

Ensign said it was marketplace issue and that “it is kind of ridiculous to put forth legislation on this issue. I will vigorously oppose this legislation.”

Specter and Boxer are expected to work this evening to make the bill more palatable to Allen, Ensign and other senators on the committee in order to have it on a markup session scheduled for this morning.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to hear similar legislation sponsored by Rep. Joe Pittts (R-PA) next week. Congress currently expects to adjourn on Oct. 8.

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