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FCC Drops Rule Requiring Cell Phone Coverage Area Maps

September 26, 2002|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators have quietly eliminated a rule that required cellular phone service providers to inform potential customers about their geographic service areas.

The Federal Communications Commission said that in today's competitive marketplace, the government mandate is no longer needed. Wireless carriers such as Sprint PCS that were exempt from the 20-year-old rule because they don't use cellular technology have nevertheless chosen to provide maps that show their coverage areas to compete with carriers that were required to comply, such as Verizon Wireless Inc., AT&T Wireless Services Inc. and Cingular Wireless.

"We believe the rule is no longer necessary because, even in the absence of the rule, cellular carriers will continue to make this information available while marketing their services in today's competitive marketplace," the FCC said.

The rule change, which was considered over the last two weeks and approved Tuesday in a nonpublic vote, becomes effective at the end of November.

Consumer advocates criticized the FCC decision, which they said could undermine efforts to improve wireless coverage as providers slash spending on their networks amid a financial meltdown in the telecommunications industry.

The change also could have public safety ramifications, considering the increasingly prominent role wireless phones have played in search and rescue efforts after national disasters, said one FCC staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Efficient markets depend on consumers getting reliable and plentiful information," said Chris Murray, legislative counsel for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. "It's hard to see how allowing companies to provide less information makes the marketplace better for consumers."

With the number of wireless phone subscribers ballooning to more than 137 million, inadequate cellular phone coverage has emerged as a key issue among mobile phone users, according to experts. Wireless providers are putting up an average of 55 new cell sites a day, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn., a trade group based in Washington. Yet the Wireless Consumer Alliance in San Diego says service area coverage and billing problems remain the wireless industry's top two complaints.

The intense competition to build out wireless networks seems to support the FCC's determination that the market competition will improve coverage, even without government mandates.

"Coverage is totally the No. 1 concern of customers," said Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson. "If your call doesn't go through, you are going to be unhappy."

Verizon has designed an entire marketing campaign to tout its cell phone coverage. For months, the company has been airing commercials featuring a wandering network tester, trudging through mountains and other remote areas and bellowing into his cell phone: "Can you hear me now? Good!"

Other carriers, such as Cingular and AT&T, also have begun to stress their coverage areas. Many have said they will continue to provide coverage maps after the FCC rules expires in November.

But some experts advise consumers not to put much stock in coverage maps because most are inaccurate.

"Coverage maps provide very, very rough guidelines and their correlation with the quality of cellular phone service in a particular area you might care about, is not great," said Charles Golvin, a wireless analyst for Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Consumer groups agree that today's maps are inaccurate but say improving their accuracy should have been the FCC's focus rather than eliminating the coverage rule.

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