Cell-phone numbers long have been regarded as personal as Social Security numbers. That will likely change.
The cell-phone industry is developing a directory of wireless-phone numbers that could lift the veil of privacy consumers have come to expect. The directory could be completed by next year.
Cell-phone carriers say the growing number of consumers cutting ties with traditional phone companies and relying solely on wireless phones will make the directory useful. There are an estimated 163 million cell-phone subscribers, and 8 million people have cut ties with their local exchange carriers and use only a wireless device, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, which represents cell- phone companies.
"If people want to be found in the future, and they live entirely by their wireless phone, a wireless directory will be necessary," CTIA spokesman Travis Larson said.
But critics -- including the nation's largest wireless carrier -- say it's merely an attempt by wireless companies to generate revenue, and they warn a directory will jeopardize consumer privacy. They also argue a wireless directory is unnecessary because consumers can have cell-phone numbers listed in phone books.
Cell-phone companies vow to protect consumer privacy by including in the directory only the wireless numbers of those subscribers who agree to be listed.
The customer-service agreements of wireless carriers give companies the right to put a subscriber's number in a directory once they sign up for service. Wireless companies won't do that if subscribers say they want to be kept off a single, industrywide directory of subscribers, Mr. Larson said.
"Privacy is number one," he said.
But Jordana Beebe, spokeswoman for the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said wireless companies will be asking the wrong question. They shouldn't ask people whether they want to be removed from the directory, they should ask whether they want to be added to the list.
"The standard has to be opt-in," she said.
Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican, introduced a bill in November to regulate how the industry collects data for the directory. The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet could hold a hearing on the issue this summer.
"The list could be a good thing, but it has to be done right," said Derek Karchner, press secretary for Mr. Pitts.
The congressman's bill would legalize the opt-in approach by requiring cell-phone companies to ask current subscribers whether they want to be on the list; allow new subscribers to keep numbers off it; and prevent cell-phone companies from charging people who want numbers off the list.
Mr. Larson said there are no plans to charge consumers in exchange for keeping numbers off the directory.
A list would generate money for the industry each time someone calls directory assistance for a wireless number, though fees haven't been established and could vary from carrier to carrier. A directory could raise $3 billion a year by 2009, according to a study by telecommunications industry consultant Zelos Group Inc.
That is evidence that wireless companies in search of revenue -- not consumers in search of convenience -- are behind efforts to create the list, said Charles Golvin, principal analyst at technology research firm Forrester Research.
"My guess is there is not much appetite among consumers as a whole. Look at the [popularity of] the Do-Not-Call list," he said.
Cell-phone companies won't publish the directory and it won't be sold to telemarketers, Mr. Larson said.
The cost to place wireless calls or send messages to cell phones has prevented telemarketing to wireless phones or wireless spam from becoming a significant problem, but there is growing concern that it will spiral out of control.
"Today it's more of a looming threat, but a wireless directory won't affect that," Mr. Golvin said.
Verizon Wireless, the nation's leading cell-phone company with 38.9 million subscribers, has said it won't contribute phone numbers to the list because it believes most consumers want to keep cell-phone numbers private.