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.  Cell phones also empower people with a sense of security and confidence that help is always nearby in an emergency. A large majority of older adults use smartphones today. In 2021, 83 percent of people age 50–64 used smartphones, as did 61 percent of people age 65 and older. 

However, 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. Text messages should be classified as telecommunications services, like phone calls (see also this chapter’s Net Neutrality section). 

Protections should include fair pricing with limits on fees. 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. 

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. 

Service providers should substantially reduce or eliminate fees that they charge customers for terminating a service contract before it expires. 

Consumers should have timely and effective means of redress when they encounter problems (see also Chapter 11: Pre-dispute binding arbitration policy). Vendors must clearly explain how and where consumers can lodge complaints. Mandatory binding arbitration should be prohibited. 

Consumers should have choice of high-quality service from a range of providers that compete for their business. Consumers should be able to use their existing cell phones when they switch providers. 

Consumers should have easy access both to customer service agents—rather than just an automated call system—and to user-friendly instructions for wireless goods and services. 

Consumers should be adequately represented in public policy decision-making related to wireless communications. 

State and federal regulators should conduct robust oversight and enforcement of consumer protections.