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.

Cell phones.
The cell phone bill of rights

I've been thinking a lot about terrible cell phone service lately. That's partly because I live in San Francisco and own an iPhone—which means that my phone is always conking out at some inopportune time. It's also been on my mind because I'm participating in a forum this week, hosted by Slate and the New America Foundation, looking at our nation's awful mobile service. (The free event takes place in Washington, D.C., on Friday morning; you can register to attend or watch a live stream on Slate.)

I've come to believe that addressing America's cell backwardness will take several steps. A necessary first step, though, is a Cell Phone Bill of Rights. Everyone signing up for a new cell plan should have the following rights:

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You have the right to know your dropped-call rate. Last year a Gizmodo reader provided the site with a stunning stat: About 30 percent of iPhone calls in the New York City area get dropped. The reader had heard this number from a "genius" at the Apple Store, a source that seemed authoritative. But AT&T—the exclusive carrier for the iPhone in the United States—moved quickly to squash the story. When I mentioned the 30 percent stat in an article, an AT&T spokesman wrote to me to say that the iPhone's dropped-call rate in New York is "a whole lot lower than 30 percent" and that AT&T's average dropped-call rate (for all phones nationwide) is 1 percent.

Should we believe the Gizmodo tipster or the AT&T rep? This points to the main problem with shopping for a new cell plan—service quality is shrouded in mystery. You know your service is bad. But is your plan worse than your neighbor's—do you get more dropped calls, worse sound quality, and slower Internet speeds? Or are you somehow better off? Unfortunately, you can't really know. Many service plans are terrible, but they're all terrible in their own ways, and there's no accurate, centralized database to let you compare one provider's performance with another's.

Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the FCC, has been pushing for the government to collect more data on how Internet service in America measures up to providers' claims. He wants the government to track Internet speeds and then let customers know about a certain company's performance when people go to sign up for service—sort of like how the government gives you data on a car's gas mileage. Genachowski argues that Internet companies would have an incentive to improve their service if customers could compare plans based on real data.

The same thing would work for cell service. The FCC could require mobile companies to provide location-specific data on dropped calls, sound quality, data speeds, network load, and other important technical specs. When you go shopping for a new plan, you'd be able to look up how each company performs in your city and make your decision accordingly.

You have the right to return your phone. Aggregated data will tell you only so much about how well your own phone will work. That's because there's a lot more to cell service than the dropped-call rate—even if you pick the plan with the best stats, your own service will depend on the phone you choose, where and at what times you use it, whether you use the Web, and a range of other personal factors.

That's why I told readers to ignore the ad war that Verizon and AT&T launched during the holidays to convince us that the other company sucked more. Their claims—Verizon says that it has a wider coverage area; AT&T says that it is the fastest 3G network—are the "tastes great" and "less filling" of mobile service. These statements are vague and subjective enough to be essentially meaningless as a guide for any specific customer's phone experience.

There's a better way to choose a cell plan. Thanks to pressure from state regulators across the country, all major mobile carriers now offer a 30-day grace period on their phones. To find out what kind of service you'll get, sign up for a phone, test it out for a month, and then take it back if your service is terrible.

There's only one problem with these 30-day return policies: Nobody knows about them. They ought to be spelled out in bold on your contract, and the salesman ought to remind you to come back in a month when you walk out the door. The government could mandate this, of course, but I think that the first cell company to advertise these provisions voluntarily would see a lot of action. Try before you buy! is a simple, killer slogan.

You have the right to understand your bill (and your contract). Bless the New York Times' David Pogue for fighting the mobile carriers' worst money-grubbing tricks. First he shamed companies for their over-long voice-mail prompts—forcing you to waste 15 seconds of airtime every time you want to check your messages or leave a message for someone else. (All major carriers except Verizon told Pogue that they were looking to fix this issue.)

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.

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.