Directory to provide 4-1-1 on cell users

Phones: Despite complaints about loss of privacy, a listing of wireless owners is likely to have your number.

March 18, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Consumers have come to expect a certain degree of confidentiality when it comes to their mobile phone numbers. Until now, the privacy of wireless subscribers has long been safeguarded.

All that might change this year.

The cellular phone industry is expected to launch a wireless directory-assistance service that seeks to include more than 70 percent of the nation's 156 million cellular numbers in a database.

While wireless numbers will not be published in a book, anyone dialing 411 directory assistance on any phone will be able to get almost any wireless number. The directory could be available by the end of the year, the wireless industry said, as five of the six largest cellular carriers work to compile names and numbers.

The change would vastly alter a peculiarity of modern communications: Wireless calling might be taking the place of traditional phone service, but its numbers remain a mostly private affair. Phone books that carry landline phone numbers look just as they did decades ago.

While many people are within reach at all times through all manner of communication, the search for contact information becomes more and more difficult as many e-mail addresses and most wireless numbers have gone unlisted and remain largely private.

Some would like to keep it that way.

"When I get a cell phone number, I consider it extremely important," said Rep. Joe Pitts, a Pennsylvania Republican. He is co-sponsoring legislation in the House of Representatives that would prevent cell phone carriers from including an existing customer's wireless number in a database unless the customer agrees.

"My feeling is that I don't want the world to know my cell phone number, and I think there are millions upon millions of other users who would agree with me," Pitts said. "No one should be forced to have a wireless number deluged with calls from outsiders."

For years, wireless phone numbers have been relatively sacrosanct compared with other forms of communication. Telemarketers have been banned from calling wireless phones. The Federal Communications Commission recently took its first steps toward banning spam that targets mobile phones and other wireless devices.

But as consumers gravitate toward e-mail to keep in touch and more than 7.5 million Americans rely solely on their cell phones, finding each other in the traditional white pages isn't all that easy anymore.

"As more and more Americans cut the cord, one group of analysts has suggested that 30 percent of all households will be without a land line, or using only wireless for voice, by 2008," said Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, an industry trade group that is leading the charge to build a wireless directory.

"The need for a directory for these people becomes greater," he said. "It's these very consumers who have expressed interest in getting a directory of their own. This is an effort to provide them with one if they choose to be listed."

What many consumers don't know is they might have given their permission to be listed in a wireless directory when they signed a service contract.

Many of the service agreements include clauses, under a section labeled privacy, that allow the cellular company to use customers' names and numbers in a directory. Some, like T-Mobile's contract, say that the customer may be charged a fee to keep a number unlisted. When a consumer signs his wireless contract, he agrees in essence to be included in the directory

AT&T Wireless' contract says it could charge a fee for inclusion in directory listings, or to be unlisted or unpublished, but those who wish to remove their consent may "notify us in writing" at an address provided in a different section of the contract. Nextel's contract is similar.

Although Verizon Wireless customers also signed contracts that give the company permission to list their names and numbers, Verizon said it will not include its 36 million subscribers in a directory.

"We take our position very seriously to protect our customers and the use of their service," said John Johnson, a Verizon Wireless spokesman. "We think it ought to be left up to the individual customer to have a wireless number published. We have no plans to make our customers' wireless numbers available."

The fine print

Privacy watchdogs worry that the need to have a large percentage of customers included could motivate wireless providers to downplay the fact that customers have the option of removing themselves from a directory.

"I don't think most people are reading the fine print," Pitts said. "In fact, I don't think most people know that a directory of wireless numbers is being created. It's so far under the radar screen. But I think there are probably 150 million users out there who would be very interested in this."

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