Cell phone agreements have long been the bane of many subscriber's lives. Cloudy language, hidden fees, legalese traps, and contract terms that lean heavily in the favor of cell phone companies.
Anyone who's been roped into a lousy cell phone contract can relate. It turns out that Congress relates, too.
Last week, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) rolled out a bill that enables cell phone subscribers to leave cell phone carrier contracts before the agreements expire.
The bill is called the The Cell Phone Consumer Empowerment Act of 2007, and its primary goal is to free subscribers to opt out of a contract for any reason up to 30 days after a new agreement is signed or an existing contract is extended. Speaking on the Senate floor last Friday, Klobuchar said it's time to level the playing field in the cell phone contract game. "Early termination fees are a family budget buster," she said. "Families should be able to terminate service without outrageous fees and know if their cell phone will work on their drives and in their home and office." Bill sponsors also inserted language that cell phone carriers must pro-rate early termination fees if a subscriber cancels closer to the agreement's end date.
In the past, cell phone companies didn't even have to offer early cancellations options. Some cell phone comanies allowed customers to leave early -- for a steep price -- but there is no law on the books that compels them to do so.
The cell phone industry isn't taking the bill lying down. Lobbyists say that the bill will only increase cell phone fees and complicate service agreement sbetween carriers and subscribers.
Says Steve Largent, the president and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (and a former member of Congress): "Wireless consumers in America enjoy the most affordable service in the free world," Largent said. "The [bill] is unnecessary and, if enacted, threatens to increase the cost of wireless service and reduce the number of choices available to American consumers." He also cited FCC statistics that state that between 2003 and 2006, the number of contract related complaints fell from 15 for every 1 million customers to nine for every 1 million.
It's an argument that few in Congress are buying. Now that the Apple iPhone service contract has been in the news because of its onerous overseas phone charges, Congress feels it is compelled to step in and act as an advocate for cell phone subscribers.
In addition to the langaue on early terminationn fees, the bill calls for carriers to:
-- Produce coverage maps that are detailed enough to identify whether a person could get service in their home
-- Make public-specific details on coverage gaps and dropped calls;
-- Inform customers of rate changes at least 30 days before they take effect.
Cell phone carriers may not like it, but Congress-watchers say the bill has an excellent chance of passing. Cell phone customers can only hope.