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First There Is Talk; Then There Is Double-Talk



As anyone knows who has recently been in the market for cellular phone service, there are so many terms and conditions, rules about hours and rules about termination, and costs for roaming and costs for additional usage that it is easy to get mired in confusion. Just as bad, once a cellular service contract is entered, understanding the monthly bill is a science for cryptographers. True, the cellular companies are just positioning themselves for competitive advantages, but do they really need to make it quite so convoluted?

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The obliqueness of this industry resembles the confusion that credit card companies imposed on applicants for many years. There were so many terms and conditions, each company highlighting different ones, that only the best-trained eyes could compare them. This led to the government standardizing the format to enable consumers to do side-by-side, apples-to-apples comparisons of the credit terms. Now, we all benefit by the standard format, with a methodical categorization from each credit card offering, in certain defined categories.

Ideas / Solutions

A similar national standardization of marketing materials is necessary with cellular service contracts. The categories could be established by the FCC and include all of the essential terms plus any additional factor used by any of the major providers in marketing their plans. Some competitors might have to state "not applicable" or "none" in some of those categories, but they could also seek inclusion of their own benefits in the category listing, for their own competitive advantages. The form would have to be updated periodically, due to advances in technology. Still, during each period, the format would be standardized. The consumer protection benefits would outweigh any inconvenience to the carriers for having to provide their terms in the form of a template, in addition to whatever other format they would like to include in their marketing materials.

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Secondly, monthly bills would follow an FCC-prescribed methodology, with a standardized structure. It would dramatically bolster consumer awareness of their own usage patterns, and the rationales behind all of the costs that they have incurred. For anyone who has ever changed from one plan to another within the same company, who then finds that minutes corresponding to each of the plans remain on their bill, standardization will dissipate their frustration. For customers who exceed the monthly minutes allotted to them, they will see, in plain English, the ramifications of such overages, including the cost per additional minute. For those who benefit from "rollover minutes", it will become possible to ascertain how many they have, how many they used, and when the remainder will expire. Removal of the cloak of obscurity will enable greater consumer awareness, protect the cellular society from overcharges, and enable users to make informed choices about what plan will best suit their needs in the future.

As is often the case, the main objection to this requirement that the carriers might raise is that their systems are not constructed for such a display. In other words, it would just be another case of resistance to change. But, if the banks could adjust, why can't the carriers? The savings from processing customer calls and complaints would probably cover the costs, anyway.

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