CU Says Cell Phone Industry’s Voluntary Code Does Nothing To Meaningfully Improve Wireless Service For Consumers

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 9, 2003
Contact:
Janee Briesemeister, brieja@consumer.org (512) 477-4431 x117
Adam Goldberg, goldad@consumer.org (202) 462-6262

CONSUMERS UNION SAYS CELL PHONE INDUSTRY’S VOLUNTARY CODE DOES NOTHING
TO MEANINGFULLY IMPROVE WIRELESS SERVICE FOR CONSUMERS

Washington, DC – Consumers Union (CU), the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, today called the wireless telephone industry’s proposed voluntary “Consumer Code for Wireless Service” vague, ambiguous and inadequate to improve service to consumers. The code offered by cell phone providers also contains no mechanism for holding carriers accountable for the promises they are making. CU believes the industry’s proposal represents an attempt to head off efforts around the country to create real protections for cell phone consumers, like those contained in the groundbreaking Telecommunications Consumer Bill of Rights scheduled for a vote by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) later this month.
“Instead of taking concrete steps to ensure that consumers receive quality service at a reasonable price, cell phone companies offer a two-and-a-half page set of vague promises that can’t be enforced,” said Janee Briesemeister, a senior policy analyst in CU’s Austin, Texas office. “It’s about time the cell phone companies finally acknowledge that something needs to be done to improve their marketing, billing and customer service, but why should we trust the companies to police themselves when they haven’t in the past? The voluntary code is a last ditch effort to head off meaningful consumer rights at the state level.”
CU supports adoption of the Bill of Rights by California, believing that it’s the best way to ensure that cell phone carriers begin to respect consumer rights. The Bill of Rights would require phone companies to spell out key rates and contract terms in clearer language, allow customers to cancel service within at least 30 days without penalty if they are not satisfied, and require notice and the right to cancel any changes in the contract. Just as important, the CPUC would have the ability to enforce these rights if they are violated by any cell phone provider in the state. CU thinks that the California Bill of Rights provides a model approach to be used by other states to raise the bar for wireless phone service.
By contrast, the voluntary code is full of ambiguities. For example, it contains language about disclosure of contract terms that is open to wide interpretation, but does not include a minimum type-face size for contract terms, as does the Bill of Rights. It promises to give consumers “access to customer service” by posting a phone number, but there is no promise to answer the call, avoid putting the consumer on hold, or even resolve the problem in a timely manner. It offers only a 14-day risk free trial period – which most carriers are now doing anyway. In addition, coverage maps need only be “approximate,” no verifiable consent is required to make changes in the contract, and carriers are promising only to follow their own privacy policies on customer information.
“The voluntary code has no way of holding providers accountable to their customers,” added Briesemeister. “So if the carriers violate its provisions, the consumer is out of luck and has nowhere to turn. And they want consumers to believe that they’re better off with a voluntary code than an enforceable Bill of Rights? If the cell phone market were as competitive as these companies claim, they would be trying to out-do each other on customer service, rather than sitting together behind closed doors Medicare Modernization Act ing up a weak set of minimum standards that can’t be enforced.”
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Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, is an independent nonprofit testing, educational and information organization serving only the consumer. We are a comprehensive source of unbiased advice about products and services, personal finance, health, nutrition and other consumer concerns. Since 1936, our mission has been to test products, inform the public and protect consumers.