Wireless Users Get the 411 — Maybe

You’re sitting at a restaurant waiting for a friend who is 10 minutes late. The maitre de tells you that if your friend does not arrive in the next 5 minutes, your table will be given to another group. You try to remember your friend’s mobile phone number but can’t, so your only option is to sit and wait.

Early next year, you might have another option: dialing 411 to find your friend’s cell number. For the past few years, many wireless carriers have been laying out plans to build a wireless directory service. They are putting the infrastructure in place and expect to offer the service next spring.

But there are being dogged by questions about the role the federal government will play, as well as doubts about customer interest. As a result, when — and possibility even if — the services will arrive is open to debate.

Support and Resistance

The supporters claim that customers are driving interest in wireless directory services. “Approximately, five million wireless users, who are mainly small businesses, now pay to have their telephone numbers listed in existing directories,” stated John Walls, vice president of public affairs at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), a wireless lobbying consortium. “With a wireless directory service, their numbers would be listed free of charge.”

Carriers also will benefit. “Wireless carriers are in an extremely competitive market and view directory services as an area where they can reap additional revenue,” said Bob Egan, president of consulting firm Mobile Competency Inc.Directory services can be a lucrative business. Whereas consumers typically pay 10 cents or less for local and long distance calls, directory services are often priced from 75 cents to a dollar. As a result, well established cellular carriers such as Alltel, AT&T Wireless, Cingular, Nextel, Sprint PCS and T-Mobile have been moving to offer the service.

The vendors have encountered significant resistance. “Consumers view their cell phone numbers as private and do not want them listed in a national directory,” Mobile Competency’s Egan told TechNewsWorld.

The CTIA, which has spearheaded development of the service for the wireless carriers, has tried to take a few steps to ensure that information would remain confidential. Consumers and businesses will have to give cellular companies permission in order for their numbers to be listed in the directory. Cellular numbers will only be available to individuals dialing 411 from a wireline or a wireless phone. The numbers will not appear in a printed directory, cannot be accessed on the Internet, and will not be sold to third-party firm, such as telemarketing companies.

How Safe is Your Listing?

Securing this information presents a significant challenge. Rather than take on the work itself, wireless carriers outsourced the task of aggregating the data from different wireless carriers into a central database to Qsent Inc., a Portland, Ore. company specializing in identity validation.

Although the firm is expected to take steps to maintain customer privacy, no system is completely secure. Currently, it is not clear what sort of punitive steps would be taken if there was a privacy breach. There has been talk, and debate, about the federal government establishing those guidelines.

“We don’t think that it’s the federal government’s role to start regulating services that have not yet gotten off the ground yet,” CTIA’s Walls told TechNewsWorld.

While the privacy focus has centered on consumer use of wireless services, businesses represent a large portion of cellular phone users. “Businesses are worried that employees will put their business cell phone numbers in the directory,” noted Mobile Competency’s Egan.

The CTIA has stated that only those individuals who have signed a contract for a phone will be able to list its number. “My daughter would not be able to list her number without my permission,” noted CTIA’s Walls. To help keep business numbers secret, companies could establish policies that prevent employees from providing the information.

Permission Already Granted

In certain cases cell phone contracts already allow the carrier to list the user’s number in a directory.

T-Mobile’s contracts state, “Unless you make other arrangements with us and pay any required fee, we may list your name, address and number in a public directory. We are not responsible for listing errors.”

Since user contracts are long and complex, there is a distinct possibility that consumers, and maybe even some businesses, signed such contracts without realizing the implication of their actions. “Before the new directory goes online, all wireless carriers have agreed to offer their users another chance to decline participation,” said CTIA’s Walls.

Carriers are preparing to roll out their service at the beginning of 2005, and there is strong likelihood that many customers will not be in the directory. The Pierz Group, a market research firm, found that 26 percent of wireless subscribers would like to have their numbers listed and another 27 percent would consider it if they felt the information was secure.

“Initially, the number of customers in the directory will be small, but I expect it to grow over time,” said Kathleen Pierz, managing partner at the firm.

Those numbers will only grow if carriers can demonstrate that the service benefits customers and that they can protect the information. Not all wireless carriers think that is the case. Verizon, the nation’s largest cellular carrier, decided not to take part in the plan.

As a result, wireless directory services are currently generating a lot of talk but arriving at little consensus. The debate is expected to intensify as carriers prepare to roll out these services in the coming months.

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