Select Page Calling cell phones could cost more Wednesday, October 23, 2002 Posted: 9:15 AM EDT (1315 GMT)

NEW YORK (AP) –Here’s another reason to check your telephone bill closely.

A subtle realignment this fall in the nation’s inscrutable tangle of phone systems could cause a surprising increase in what some consumers pay to call cell phones from traditional landlines.

The change, rooted in the different ways landline and wireless phone networks are laid out, means some calls to cell phones that were once considered local now incur higher toll charges.

For most people, the increases will be negligible. Verizon Inc., the largest regional phone company, estimates that in the 33 million households it serves, the average bill will rise pennies per month.

Even so, Verizon warned customers about the new policy in an insert with September phone bills and acknowledged that some people’s monthly charges could jump $10 or $20 unless they change their calling habits.

“This change may come as a shock to many wireline customers the first time they see it on their bills, and could cause callers to hesitate next time they reach for the phone and want to dial a wireless number,” said Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a trade organization for wireless carriers.

No serious trouble reported

The billing change doesn’t appear to have caused serious trouble where it already has been in effect, mainly in the West and Midwest.

“I’m not aware that this is an issue that we get a lot of consumer complaints on,” said Federal Communications Commission spokeswoman Meribeth McCarrick.

Why is this happening?

Area codes are divided into “rate centers” with their own number prefixes. Calls to nearby rate centers are considered local, while those to further rate centers generate intra-state or regional toll prices. Calls between more spread-out points count as long-distance.

Because of differences in how wireless networks are set up, wireless carriers don’t need to get phone numbers in every local rate center. So your cell phone could have a number from a rate center distant from your home.

For such customers, a call from home to their cell phone could incur per-minute toll charges.

To stimulate use of mobile phones, wireless carriers years ago got landline companies to treat such calls as local. Wireless carriers reimbursed landline companies for the lost toll revenue — a process known as reverse billing or wide-area calling.

Reverse billing diminishes

Reverse billing has diminished over time, largely because wireless companies acquired numbers in more rate centers as their customer base exploded.

For example, in New York state, fewer than 6 percent of wireless phone exchanges still employ reverse billing, said Michael O’Connor, a director of federal regulatory issues at Verizon.

Similarly, Sprint PCS estimates that wireless billing covers fewer than 5 percent of its customers, said Jack Weyforth, manager of carrier interconnection. AT&T Wireless spokeswoman Rochelle Cohen said “a very small percentage of our customers have these sorts of phone numbers.”

On Nov. 24, reverse billing will begin to die altogether. The FCC is changing how phone numbers are allocated to different providers and in many cases reverse-billing systems aren’t sophisticated enough to deal with that switch.

The final blow to reverse-billing should come next year as consumers get “number portability,” the right to keep their mobile numbers if they switch carriers.

Michael Altschul, general counsel for the cell-phone industry group, said local phone companies asked regulators in several states to let them kill reverse billing.

That forced wireless companies to establish their own connections in local rate centers by leasing costly equipment and space from landline companies, he said.

“We’re disappointed with the (local phone companies) that they’re discontinuing this service, because it was meeting the needs of customers,” added Diane Rainey, a spokeswoman for wireless carrier Nextel Corp. Unclear how many affected

Sam Simon, chairman of the Telecommunications Research & Action Center, a consumer rights group, said complexities of the phone system make it unclear how widespread the new charges will be.

No phone company would give details on where people could be affected.

All nine states where BellSouth Corp. is the local phone provider got rid of the old billing system by Oct. 1, spokesman Jeff Battcher said.

In the 14 states served by Qwest Communications International Inc., the change is scheduled to take effect in November, though Qwest is working on ways to extend the old system wherever possible, spokeswoman Carey Brandt said.

Many SBC Communications Inc. customers experienced the change several years ago. People in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas will begin to see it this fall, SBC spokesman Kevin Belgrade said.

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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