Ray T. Mahorney
Dec. 26, 2004, 8:47PM
Wireless industry eager for directory
Customers likely to resist, crimping ambitious plans
By JON VAN
CHICAGO - At a time when millions of Americans have become more concerned about privacy, cell phone
companies are pushing ahead with a plan to put customers' numbers in a wireless directory.
The industry will begin laying the groundwork to integrate wireless numbers into the existing 411
directory assistance service in January. By spring, most wireless phone companies will start asking
customers if they want their numbers listed.
Most customers are likely to say no, according to surveys.
Despite the resistance, the wireless industry, which has grown to more than 170 million handsets,
believes that listing cell phone numbers is necessary to make their service fully competitive to
But a weary public, already suspicious of privacy intrusions, just wants to be left alone. Even a
third of wired phone customers now pay a fee to keep their numbers delisted.
Yet by summer, wireless numbers could be available when people dial 411. How many cell phone numbers
will be listed, however, is far from clear.
"I'm on the phone thousands of minutes a month with customers, and I don't want to be interrupted by
someone calling to sell me something," Chicago interior designer Michael Panitch said.
A recent survey found that only 10 percent of consumers said they would volunteer their wireless
numbers for directory assistance. The survey of more than 1,000 consumers also found that 53 percent
opposed a nationwide wireless directory, according to market research firm TNS, which conducted the
survey for TRUSTe.
Nonetheless, Cingular, Sprint, T-Mobile and Nextel are pushing ahead with the idea, while Verizon
Wireless and U.S. Cellular will not participate. Qsent, based in Portland, Ore., has been hired by
the participating carriers to manage the directory.
"This will be done on a privacy protected basis," said Greg Keene, Qsent's chief privacy officer.
"If you go on the list and later decide to get off, you can do so with no history."
Furthermore, he said, there will not be a published list, like the White Pages for wired phones. "We
will make individual numbers available to 411 operators, but we won't supply the entire database to
The controversy troubles John Rooney, chief executive of Chicago-based U.S. Cellular Corp.
"I don't understand the arrogance of an industry that goes ahead with this when our customers tell
us they don't want it," he said. "Not one of our customers has ever asked to participate in this.
"Even the customers who don't get mad don't trust us. I just get ticked off that the leaders of our
industry could do something to raise so much customer ire."
The concern that a wireless directory will be implemented has sparked new interest in the federal
government's do-not-call registry. More than
3 million new numbers were registered in the first two weeks of December, officials at the Federal
Trade Commission said.
The list of numbers, which is off limits to telemarketers, usually gets only about 200,000 additions
a week. Misleading e-mail messages that have recently circulated across the Internet warning that
telemarketers will soon get cell numbers are credited with the upturn in listings.
The fear that telemarketers will pester wireless customers once their numbers are public is
misplaced, Keene said. Because it costs anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50 to call 411, telemarketers
would find it unprofitable to use the service to gather numbers, he said.
Still, public unease with the notion of a wireless directory may be having an effect on carriers.
Recently Sprint executives decided against asking their customers to participate in a wireless 411
service next year.
"We still support the concept, but we'll wait out 2005 to see how it goes," a spokesman said.
The value of privacy
Denny Strigl, chief at Verizon Wireless, said that privacy of cell phone numbers is something
customers value greatly.
"Let's as an industry stop pushing something on customers that they clearly don't want. It's a dumb
But other cell phone operators believe that without a wireless directory their service is incomplete
when compared to wired phone service, said Jeff Fishburn, a spokesman for the carriers that are
establishing the service.
"The goal is to draw more people to wireless for communications," he said.
Assuring nervous customers that their cell phone number can be listed without drawing unwanted calls
"Once your number gets into any database, it's out there, and you can't get it back," said Bob
Bulmash, founder of Private Citizen, a Naperville, Ill.-based privacy advocacy group.
"Marketers are getting more sophisticated since the do-not-call list was enacted," he said. "Now
when you check out at a retail store, they ask you for your phone number. They especially want your
cell phone number.
"If you give them your number, they take that as permission to call you since they have a commercial
relationship with you."
The phone industry has been slow to address privacy questions associated with customer phone
numbers, said Kathleen Pierz, an independent telecom consultant based in Clarkston, Mich.
"Phone companies internally don't pay much attention to directory assistance," she said. "It's not a
With the proliferation of ways to reach people - e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers, short message
addresses - there is a growing need to make contact information available in ways that let people
control their privacy, she said.
"Right now the choices are limited to either list or don't list your number," she said. "The
carriers should offer other choices."
One option would be enable someone who calls 411 to ask for John Doe to be told that Doe's number is
unlisted, but the caller could leave a message and number so that Doe can return the call if he
wishes, Pierz said.
Qsent's Keene said that new technologies such as Internet telephony already allow greater freedom in
Internet phone users can program their phones so that certain callers - their spouse, children or
boss - can always get through. Others such as customers or colleagues get through during working
hours, but go into voice mail at other times.
Unknown callers might be programmed to always go
into voice mail and known pests, such as collection
agents, would only get busy signals.
"Once people get that kind of control, they'll be more willing to list their numbers," Keene