The Cell Phone Bill of Rights: Four rules to fix mobile phone service in America.

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March 31 2010 1:40 PM

The Cell Phone Bill of Rights

Four rules to fix mobile phone service in America.

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Pogue has also gone after cell companies for racking up charges when customers mistakenly hit certain buttons. Many carriers dedicate buttons on their phones to instantly launch a Web browser or other streaming service; these services bill you immediately, even if you cancel the function right away.

There's no easy way to regulate these practices; if any one trick gets banned, the companies would find another way to add extra fees. But there's an underlying reason these tricks are so widespread—our cell phone bills are too complicated, hiding all of these charges under vague names, across a half-dozen pages of confusing data. We need simpler bills.

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Regulators have addressed this issue before. Since 2000, credit card companies have been required to print a standardized summary of the various costs of a credit offer. (The design, which calls for specific terms to be spelled out in designated type sizes, is called "the Schumer Box" after Sen. Charles Schumer, the lawmaker who proposed it.)

Our phone bills and contracts should be just as easy to navigate. The contract should point out your early termination fees, the pro-rating of those fees, and your monthly minimum bill amount in a big box rather than in the fine print. The bill should have a similar box that displays all the services you're being charged for—voice minutes, data, texts—plus other personal stats (your dropped-call rate, for instance). All of it should be in one box that doesn't extend beyond the first page of your bill.

You have the right to unlock your phone. When you get a phone as part of a new cell plan, there's a good chance that Verizon, Sprint, or whoever else has "locked" the device. This means that the phone won't work on another carrier. The companies do this because they want to recoup the subsidy you're getting for buying a phone along with a cell contract. For instance, AT&T gives you a price break on the iPhone when you sign up for two years of AT&T service (the full price of a 16GB iPhone 3GS is $599, but you pay only $199 when you sign the contract). Because it's helping you pay for your device, AT&T locks the phone so that you can't take it to a rival like T-Mobile.

But what about when your contract expires or you opt out of it and elect to pay the early-termination fee? In 2006, the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress ruled that it is legal for people to unlock their phones even if they have to hack into copyrighted software (such as the iPhone OS) to do so. As a result, there is a thriving subculture of hackers who make it their mission to figure out how to unlock all phones that come onto the market. They're often successful.

The trouble is, following their tricks to unlock certain phones can be very difficult. After you've fulfilled the terms of your contract, you own your phone. You shouldn't need to follow hacker circles to find out how to get the most out of it.

There ought to be a rule: Once you've fully paid up, your phone carrier or device maker will unlock your phone for you, no questions asked.

That's my wish-list for mobile phone service. What's in your Cell Phone Bill of Rights? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.