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Lawmakers target cell phone contracts

ST. PAUL - Kristen Farrell is an educated, young Minnesotan who estimates she spent 15 hours fighting with Sprint mobile telephone representatives.

At one point, she said, she was transferred from one customer service representative to another until she had gone through what she estimated to be 15 of them. Later, to return a call from Sprint, she had to call number at least 10 times before reaching the right person.

It was all because her voice mail stopped working and Sprint demanded that she buy a new telephone, with a new two-year contract to go with it.

"Not everyone has the time or education to follow up with Sprint and knows when they (company representatives) were doing something wrong," the Minneapolis woman told the Minnesota Senate Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee Tuesday.

The committee gave preliminary approval to a bill designed to clear up confusion like Farrell experienced, but negotiations between bill sponsor Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and the mobile telephone industry are to be conducted before the next committee hearing in a week.

Wireless lobbyists told committee members that the bill is not needed because companies are improving their customer service, and if the bill would become law it would raise their expenses so much that it would be difficult to do business in Minnesota.

"Everything that is in this bill, we do," said Wauneta Browne, an AT&T vice president.

Olson said Browne and others from the industry are trying to kill the bill with red herrings, but she agreed to meet with industry representatives and other senators before next week's second committee stop.

The bill would require companies to give consumers copies of their contracts and accurate coverage maps, as well as making sure mobile telephone users understand that when changes are made to service that the contract may be extended.

Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson said her office receives more mobile telephone complaints than any other consumer issue. "The complaints are increasing every year."

"We all have a love-hate relationship with our cell phone," said Skip Humphrey, former Minnesota attorney general and now state president of AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.

It is especially important for the elderly to have dependable and understandable service, he said, because they rely on mobile telephones for safety.

"These are necessary services," Humphrey said. "We are in the digital age."

Verizon Wireless' Mike McDermott said the attorney general already has the power to take mobile telephone companies to court when she thinks companies are mistreating customers - and Attorney General Lori Swanson has done that.

Browne said AT&T and other companies - and stores that sell their products - would be forced to hand out paper copies of coverage maps and other documents when people buy their phones.

"It will modify how we do business in this state," Browne said, adding it also would increase costs.

Sen. Olson, however, did not see the problem with requiring Wal-Mart to hand out a couple of sheets of paper when someone buys a telephone.

Browne argued that the mobile phone industry is expanding rapidly and fighting to keep up with the latest trends. Every new industry has growing pains, she said.

"This technology is blowing past us," Browne added.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.