Wireless Communications


Wireless phones have assumed a central role in modern life. For many consumers, including older adults, they have become indispensable. Each user has more freedom and flexibility with a cell phone, including communication by voice and text message. Today, smartphone adoption is 86 percent among Americans age 50–59, 81 percent for those age 60–69, and 62 percent for those age 70 and older. Cell phones also empower people with a sense of security and confidence that help is always nearby in an emergency. Increasingly, customers are turning to web-connected smartphones. This allows them to stay connected with family and friends, conduct business, stream audio and video, navigate, and coordinate schedules.

The wireless industry’s growth has, at times, been accompanied by unfair, abusive, and deceptive business practices. Many consumers have become frustrated with wireless service and pricing. In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a policy that gives cell phone companies more control over text messages. Critics say the rule allows companies to block text messages and affects privacy. More consumer protections are needed.

Under federal law, states are largely barred from regulating wireless phone companies, except under certain conditions. States are allowed to regulate “other terms and conditions” of wireless services that do not pertain directly to rates, including placement of wireless facilities, billing and marketing practices, and other consumer protection matters. The line between rate regulation and “other” oversight is an ongoing subject of contention between the wireless industry and state and federal regulators.



Consumer protection

Policymakers should create consumer protections for wireless communications services. This includes text messages. Protections should consist of fair pricing with limits on fees and the right to cancel. Consumers should receive clear up-front information to facilitate price and quality comparisons. Contract terms should be clear, concise, and in plain language. Consumers should be aware of network holes or high-traffic areas that disrupt service.

Consumers should have timely and effective means of redress when they encounter problems (see also Pre-dispute mandatory binding arbitration). Providers should clearly explain how and where consumers can lodge complaints. In addition:

  • All consumers should be able to cancel, without penalty, any contract for wireless telephone service within at least 20 days after the date of the first bill for monthly service following service activation. Within that period, consumers should be able to return, for a full refund, any equipment acquired from the provider or its agents or authorized dealers.
  • Service providers should substantially reduce or eliminate fees that they charge customers for terminating a service contract before it expires.
  • Wireless carriers should be prevented from using handset-locking software or other techniques that disable otherwise functional cell phones when consumers switch providers.
  • Text messages should be classified as telecommunications services, like phone calls (see also Net Neutrality).