Wireless firms are cool to listing cell numbers

Cingular, Verizon, Sprint opt out of 411 directory of mobile phone users

April 30, 2005|By Jon Van | Jon Van,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The drive to offer wireless phone numbers through directory assistance is moving forward but with far less momentum than the mobile phone industry anticipated.

Cingular Wireless, the nation's largest mobile phone carrier, will not participate in the project this year after first supporting it. Verizon Wireless, the No. 2 carrier, actively opposes the wireless 411 plan, and Sprint PCS, the No. 3 carrier, decided months ago against participating, at least for this year.

Among major wireless operators targeting consumers, only T-Mobile still plans to go ahead with a wireless 411 offering this year.

"We'll do it on an opt-in basis," said Bryan Zidar, a T-Mobile spokesman. "Sometime in August, we'll let our customers know we will offer this service.

"If a customer wants a number to be listed, he must contact us to make it happen. If a customer does nothing, his number won't be listed."

Some T-Mobile wireless phone numbers may be available from 411 services by year's end, Zidar said.

Last year, when more mobile phone carriers were enthusiastic about wireless directory assistance, they contracted with Qsent Inc. of Portland, Ore., to set up a system that would make wireless numbers available while protecting customer privacy.

Many cell phone customers have expressed fears that their numbers will become widely available and that they will be beset by telemarketing pitchmen.

Not likely

Greg Keene, Qsent's chief privacy officer, said the company's system is designed to prevent that from happening.

Also, he noted, federal regulations prohibit automated dialers from making calls that result in a charge to the call recipient, as is commonly the case with mobile phone calls.

"Telemarketers don't want to call cell phones," Keene said.

Despite industry assurances, customers remain leery of wireless 411, with misinformation spread across the Internet fueling much concern.

Because of the misinformation, United States Cellular Corp., a Chicago company that has opposed the wireless 411 plan from the start, reiterates that opposition regularly in billing information mailed to customers.

Thank you letter

"I got a letter from a customer the other day thanking me for not being a part of 411," said John E. Rooney, U.S. Cellular's chief executive officer. "We've had a number of customers thank us. And we haven't heard from a single customer who said he'd like his number to be listed.

"I think what's happened is the rest of the industry has discovered that this proposal bucks the trend of consumerism. And that's a bad thing to do."

Dozens of services offer directory assistance through 411, Keene said.

"There's a lot of interest [among 411 services] in getting wireless numbers because it means better service for their customers," he said.

As Qsent envisions the service, a caller who dials 411 to ask for the number of John K. Doe in Chicago may be offered Doe's home number and also be told he has a wireless number listed as well. If the caller asks for the wireless number, the 411 operator would retrieve it from a computer database and give it out.

Wireless numbers will be stored in a database managed by Qsent and given out on a one-time-only basis, Keene said, to ensure that a wireless customer who has decided to have his mobile phone number listed can withdraw that listing later, should he wish to do so.

Likened to Caller ID

Keene noted that Caller ID for wired phones also stirred customer fears and controversy when introduced. No one thinks twice about Caller ID now, he said.

"I think once we start offering wireless directory assistance, the same thing will happen," Keene said. "Customers will see there's nothing to worry about."

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