Millions of Americans can no doubt sympathize with the parent whose cellphone signal dies just as she's trying to tell the day-care center that she'll be a few minutes late. Such frustrations are increasingly common and not always the force of nature that customers may presume.
The incentive for cellphone providers today "is to jam as many subscribers on [a single cellphone tower] as possible," says John Jackson, a high-tech analyst for Yankee Group, a Boston-based market research firm. As a result, callers "sound like they're underwater," when they can be heard at all.
Analysts like Jackson say that such crowding is a simple result of providers signing up new users more quickly than they are erecting new cellphone towers.
Consumers Union detailed the problems in a February 2003 study of six wireless service providers. Most study participants, the magazine said, "had to crawl through a maze of calling areas, dead zones, roaming charges and fees" before successfully completing a call.
Growing cellphone service interruptions mean that consumers need more power against the cellphone providers.
In the next month, the five members of California's Public Utilities Commission will decide whether to subject the wireless industry to the same consumer safeguards it applies to land-line carriers.
The proposed Telecommunications Consumer Bill of Rights may be too sweeping, but the PUC should at least retain two key requirements:
* That wireless carriers give consumers a 30-day trial period in which they can cancel their contract without penalty.
* That billing statements clearly distinguish between government-imposed taxes and charges levied at the carrier's discretion.
Wireless industry trade groups argue that the bill violates Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's directive that agencies not pass new regulations until their economic effect can be studied. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn., for instance, has spent more than $500,000 lobbying against the measure, fearing it might become a template for other states.
To address the governor's concerns about overzealous and expensive regulations, the commissioners may want to pare down potentially costly provisions in the Bill of Rights, such as an increased ability for the PUC to impose fines on cellphone carriers.
But the gist of the bill -- including the trial period and the requirement that bills be in plain English -- would impose little burden on well-run companies.
What it might do is push companies to clean up their signals or risk losing customers.