Calling cell phones may cost more than expected

Monday, October 21, 2002

NEW YORK -- 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 that 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.

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.

Sam Simon, of the Tele-communications Research & Action Center, a consumer rights group, said it is unclear how widespread the new charges will be.

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

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