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AT&T adds parental controls

The phone giant will allow limits to be set on wireless calls, text messaging and downloads.

September 04, 2007|From the Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO — It may be something of a teenage nightmare: possible limits on wireless phone calls, curbs on text messages and restrictions on downloads -- all at a parent's fingertips.

AT&T Inc., the nation's largest wireless carrier, will launch a service today giving parents that kind of wide-ranging control on almost all of its 63.7 million subscriber lines.

"We were certainly hearing from parents who were dismayed at overuse of text or phones," said Carlton Hill, vice president of voice products for AT&T's wireless unit and the mother of two teenagers. "We want to find a way for kids to use phones without having to take the phone away."

Many parents want their children to have access to cellphones for safety reasons, but they don't want them making or receiving nonemergency calls during the school day, chatting away all the shared family-plan minutes or bloating the bill with text messaging charges, Hill said.

Several upstarts have tried tackling the market for limited phones, including Enfora Inc.'s TicTalk and Firefly Mobile Inc., which offer handsets for children.

Disney Mobile, launched by Walt Disney Co. in June 2006, offers many of the same functions as AT&T's new service, but parents must sign up with the carrier. Disney phones also include a global positioning system function that allows parents to physically locate their kids' handsets, a feature not available from AT&T.

AT&T's Smart Limits service will be offered as an add-on for $4.99 per month per line. No contract will be required, and it will work on all but a handful of customer lines left on an old network the company is phasing out.

The functions, including call blocking, hour limits and text messaging and download allowances, will be set through a website. Calls to or from a parent's number can be made to override the restrictions, and calls to 911 can be made anytime.

The AT&T service also allows filtering of websites parents don't want their children accessing from their phones, but that function will not work on Apple Inc.'s iPhone because of the browser, said AT&T spokesman Fletcher Cook.

The website filter will also be inoperable when a phone is using a Wi-Fi network because AT&T can block only content delivered over its wireless networks.

The Smart Limits service will be marketed to AT&T's existing family-plan customers and through advertising in parent magazines, Hill said, but because it is available throughout the AT&T network, the service can also be used by business customers or individuals looking to block and limit certain callers or hours of incoming calls.

"We expect over time to see other segments open up," Hill said.

But the target subjects of Smart Limits -- chatty teens and tweens who are fluent in text messaging -- are unlikely to be thrilled with the new controls.

"Kids won't like it," said 16-year-old Alex Wall, who was shopping for a phone with his mother at a San Antonio AT&T store last week.

His mother, Franze Wall, said she could see the appeal of being able to set such limits, but she probably wouldn't use them because she saw it as a trust issue with her sons.

"That's good," Alex joked.

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