- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Wireless companies are offering options for parents to avoid high cell phone bills from overuse by their children as the companies increasingly turn their marketing efforts toward young consumers.

Parents pay for nearly three-quarters of cell phone service for teens and pre-teens, according to the international technology and consumer market research firm GfK NOP.

The teens represent a nearly $11 billion-a-year wireless market in the United States.

“Clearly, the days when parents admonished their kids to use cell phones only for emergencies are over,” said Ben Rogers, vice president of GfK NOP Technology.

Options for controlling cell phone use include:

• Several companies offer restricted-dialing phones that allow parents to program in up to 20 numbers that can be called from the phone. It also can be programmed to restrict who can call, the hours it can be used and the maximum number of minutes per month. Brand names include the Firefly, the Migo and the Wherifone. The calls typically cost 25 cents apiece.

“You have the peace of mind of being able to contact your child and being able to have control over the situation,” said Joe Farren, spokesman for CTIA, a trade group for the cellular phone industry.

• All major wireless companies offer “pay as you go” services in which customers buy reloadable cards with a fixed number of calling minutes on them, usually costing 10 cents per call. The callers — teens or otherwise — can make additional calls only if they add minutes to the cards.

• Parents can add their children to their wireless plans for about $10 per month. Any excessive charges will show up on the parents’ bill or can be viewed online.

• Customers who plan to use data or messaging features can buy “packages” of services that can be used up to a limit within a specific time period, such as one month. A typical text-messaging package would cost about $3 for 50 messages and $10 for 1,000 messages. The companies also can provide unlimited service for a single fee, typically running about $20 a month.

• Companies offer services that block unauthorized use of wireless phones for data services. Cingular offers one called Purchase Blocker, for example.

“When the Purchase Blocker is turned on, it bars the ability to buy any content that is billed directly to the wireless phone invoice, such as ringtones, graphics and games,” said Alexa Graf Kaufman, spokeswoman for telecommunications company Cingular Wireless.

Some parents admit feeling frustrated with their teenagers over cell phone habits.

“No more downloads,” said Darlene Murrell, the mother of two high school girls in the District, after she received her cell phone bill last week. It included $65 of downloaded music and customized ring tones by her children, Mia, 16, and August, 15.

Mrs. Murrell called wireless provider Cingular to ask that the download feature be removed from her children’s cell phone service.

“That’s money I could buy something else with,” Mrs. Murrell said.

Her daughter Mia, an H.D. Woodson High School student, said she downloaded different ring tones for each friend who calls so she will know by the sound of the ring whether she wants to answer the phone.

Ring tones, which are used by 89 percent of teen cell phone owners, typically cost about $1.99 each. Games, which are downloaded by 53 percent of teenaged cell phone users, cost about $3.99 each.

“It’s like my life,” Mia said about the cell phone service she has had for two months. “I don’t know what I would do without it.”

Services for avoiding excessive fees coincide with wireless phone advertisements designed to produce more teenage customers.

Instead of advertising pitches about the business advantages and convenience, wireless companies tell teenagers they can have fun with their phones.

“The market for adults is getting close to saturation,” said Julie Ask, wireless analyst for Jupiter Research, a New York market research company. “There’s about 70 percent saturation right now.”

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