Agreement may help clear up cell phone issues

By Abby Morris
star staff

  A new agreement announced Wednesday between 32 states, including Tennessee, and three of the nation's largest cellular telephone service providers will help consumers better understand their coverage areas and give them more options when choosing a service, according to the Tennessee attorney general's office.
  State Attorney General Paul G. Summers announced Tuesday morning that he and the attorneys general for 31 other states entered into agreements with Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless and Sprint PCS addressing several "consumer-friendly" practices. The agreements require the carriers named to provide coverage maps to consumers, give consumers at least two weeks to terminate service contracts without incurring early termination penalties and change the way the service providers advertise and sell.
  "We are pleased that Tennesseans will have a clearer idea about the limits of wireless coverage and their wireless telephone plans," Summers said in a released statement. "We want Tennesseans to have all the information they need to determine which plan and wireless carrier is best for their individual needs."
  An important portion of the agreement gives consumers a two-week trial period in which they can sample a cellular provider's services to determine if it meets their needs.
  "Under the agreement, consumers will have a trial period to find out if they have wireless service where they live, work and play," Summers said. "If the consumer is not happy with the wireless service they may return the phone within 14 days and not pay a termination penalty. If the consumer returns the phone within three days, they will not have to pay the termination fee and will get a refund of any activation fee they may have paid."
  Another item addressed by the agreement is the distribution of coverage area maps. "Consumers may be familiar with the maps previously provided by wireless carriers which consisted of a map of the entire calling area. In some cases, the entire United States was covered in one solid color," Summers said. "Carriers referred to these maps as 'rate maps' indicating where rates were available. Coverage was not necessarily available in the calling area of the entire United States, for a variety of reasons, including lack of cell towers, lack of roaming agreements, lack of capacity to accommodate all calls during certain high peak times, and physical obstructions, such as buildings, hills and trees.
  "Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless and Sprint PCS now will provide maps to consumers that are as accurate as possible under current technology."
  Other provisions of the agreement call for certain disclosures in the carriers' advertisements and through their retail, Internet and telemarketing sales channels.
  "These agreements resolve state consumer protection investigations of the carriers focusing on alleged misleading advertisements and unclear disclosures relating to service agreement terms and wireless coverage areas," Summers said. "The carriers must comply with most of the terms of the agreements within 120 days from July 21, 2004. The carriers must comply with all of the terms of the agreements within 180 days from July 21, 2004.
  Calie Shackleford, a spokesperson for Cingular Wireless, said that the company is pleased with the new agreement. "It's obviously a good thing for the consumer and our goal is really to make things better for the consumer," she said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "We're really trying to help the consumer get a clear picture of how the network operates."
  According to Shackleford, the subject of coverage area maps is one which Cingular has been working on for some time. "We've been working on more detailed maps since the start of the New Year to help the consumer understand which areas are covered and which areas will be covered in the near future."
  Coverage areas change on a weekly basis as more towers are erected and new roaming agreements are entered into and Cingular Wireless representatives say the company is trying to stay on top of the issue by updating coverage maps approximately once a month.
  According to Travis Sowders, a spokesperson with Sprint PCS, the service provider is already in compliance with many of the terms of the agreement. "Most of the provisions of the settlement are things that Sprint already has in place," Sowders said, adding that Sprint PCS is "pleased with the settlement."
  Many of the principles of the agreement fall in line with standards set forth in September 2003 by the Cellular, Telecommunications and Internet Association concerning return policies and truth in advertising, according to Sowders.
  Nancy Stark, a spokesperson for Verizon Wireless, said that the company also has many of the stipulated goals in the agreement in place. "This agreement was a voluntary agreement between the carriers and the attorneys general. These are minimum standards that Verizon Wireless already meets or exceeds," said Stark. "The hope is that this raises the bar for all carriers and consumers. We are very proud of our record with disclosure and consumer friendly practices."
  States entering into the agreements with the carriers, in addition to Tennessee, are: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
  As of December 2003, Verizon Wireless served an estimated 713,000 Tennesseans; Cingular served an estimated 505,000 Tennesseans and Sprint PCS served an estimated 357,000 Tennesseans, according to information from Summers.
  The carriers also agreed to pay a total of $5 million to the attorneys general to cover the costs of the multi-state inquiry and for consumer education. Tennessee's share of that amount is $502,500.