- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008

The days of ambiguous cell-phone charges and early-termination fees could be numbered if a draft bill before Congress becomes law.

The proposal would require wireless carriers to plainly disclose all charges, to pro-rate termination fees and to allow customers to cancel agreements within 30 days for any reason without penalty.

The bill also would let consumers buy a handset from one carrier and use it on a competitor’s network.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, would pre-empt any conflicting state or local consumer-protection laws but would give states along with the Federal Communications Commission the authority to enforce federal rules. The draft legislation is similar to a Senate bill introduced last fall, the Cell Phone Consumer Empowerment Act of 2007. That bill has four sponsors.

A wireless-industry spokesman yesterday expressed support for a national regulatory framework, saying carriers are being threatened by “a patchwork of conflicting state-by-state regulations.”

“You simply can’t regulate wireless in one state and have the effect of those regulations stop at the border of the next state,” said Steve Largent, president and chief executive of trade group CTIA, before Mr. Markey’s Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

States now have broad authority to regulate “terms and conditions,” but not prices, of wireless service.

As for other provisions of the legislation, Mr. Largent said competition already addresses consumer concerns.

“If one of CTIA’s members doesn’t satisfy their customers, their competitors will,” said Mr. Largent, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

A member of the Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, urged lawmakers to take a closer look at the calculations wireless networks use for early-termination fees, typically $175 for a two-year contract.

“The carriers are obviously padding those early-termination-fee penalties, not to reflect actual costs or damages, but that’s a little bit of overage,” said Chris Murray, a senior counsel for the group.

Mr. Markey’s Wireless Consumer Protection and Community Broadband Empowerment Act of 2008 also recognizes a municipality’s right to offer broadband Internet service and calls for a government assessment of its use of the wireless spectrum.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Markey said he intends to introduce the bill after revisions are made to the draft.

“I think there’s a lot of support out there for a lot of different portions of the bill,” she said, adding that the panel “definitely tapped into an issue that needs to be addressed.”

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