Congress, Wireless Industry Working on Cell Phone Directory

Who hasn’t been in desperate need of someone’s cell phone number and cursed the lack of cell phone directory assistance? The wireless industry and Congress are debating the logistics and expect to soon have a directory available.

Congress is focusing its attention on privacy issues with legislation pending that would require cell phone users to "opt in" to the directory and would prevent the industry from collecting the "unlisted" charges people pay to keep their land line numbers private. That fee generates $50 million a year in revenue for telephone companies.

The Wireless 411 Consumer Privacy Act was introduced in both the House and the Senate before the holiday recess.

"It is important for Congress to clearly articulate a pro-consumer privacy policy for wireless 411 information before the industry implements a 411 database," Representative Edward J. Markey, D-MA, who is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, told the New York Times. "Otherwise, wireless consumers may be on the receiving end of an industry-designed service that results in privacy invasions, an increase in unwanted calls, or new charges simply to retain the current level of privacy." Markey is a co-sponsor of the bill with Rep. Joe Pitts, R-PA.

A recent survey showed that wireless customer care about privacy. Two percent would list their numbers with the directory if there were no privacy considerations, a number that jumps to 51 percent when privacy limits are included.

Competing wireless companies are being forced to work together to develop a directory, expected to make a limited debut later this year as a call-in service, not as a printed document. An alliance of wireless companies, working under the trade group Cellular Telecommunications Internet Association, has been meeting to determine the particulars of such a service, the Times reported.

"Each carrier will go forward on its own schedule," Travis Larson, a spokesperson for the trade group, told the Times. "There's no official industrywide date or time. Consumers might discover this organically, if you will."

Despite congressional involvement, the database may grow unchecked, one industry analyst told the Times. "Almost everyone has signed a contract," said Kathleen Pierz, an analyst who has published a treatise on wireless privacy. "Right in the tiny print you give permission to include yourself in a database. People are so totally unaware of that. If you just simply put people in a wireless directory, you will not only have a mass revolt, you will have the federal government, the FCC, breathing down your neck, and for good reason."

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