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Today Show: "Why won’t wireless companies help stop cell phone thefts?"

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Tens of thousands of cell phones are stolen in
the U.S. every year — many of them violently.

Readers may recall that in the past few months I have published posts entitled “Is the Cellular Industry Tone Deaf” and “Some Possible New Year's Resolutions for the Cellular Industry”. While one might think I was hostile to the cellular industry, actually I am a great admirer of them in many ways. They have achieved tremendous technical efficiency improvements since the initiation of cell phone service in the early 1980s and they have had tremendous positive impact on our society. CTIA’s website has a “Wireless Safety” section that rightfully says,

“Your wireless device is a fantastic safety tool, and can help save your life as well as the lives of others. This section focuses on CTIA and wireless industry initiatives, such as Wireless AMBER Alerts and Text2Help that allow you to help others in trouble through your wireless device.”

But on some issues related to interactions with the public the industry is really “tone deaf”. So it is not surprising that today when the headlines are dominated by the Romney aide “Etch-a-Sketch” comment that the Today Show, one of America’s most popular news programs, has a segment on “Why won’t wireless companies help stop cell phone thefts?” Here is a quote from the Today website:

“Police say it is an epidemic across the country and only getting worse: Tens of thousands of smartphones stolen every year. And yes, it gets violent: Many victims are beaten, bruised and hospitalized. Authorities say there’s an easy fix, a way to stop these criminals in their tracks right now. But, they say, the wireless companies are blocking it — to protect their profits.”

The NBC reporter, Jeff Rossen, states that in several countries, including UK and Australia, technologies and policies are in place to “brick” permanently any stolen cell phone so that it has no resale value. Here is the Today web site summary of what was said
Walls on Today

“But the technology already exists. They’ve been doing it in the U.K. for a decade, and in Australia, too, where authorities say it’s working; smartphone robberies are down. The industry’s response: Let’s wait: It won’t work here until every country joins in. “Let's make sure we get, for example, Mexican service providers, Central American, South America, African, Chinese,” (CTIA’s John) Walls said.”

“Why not start with the U.S.?” Rossen asked. “Why not take the first step here?”

“Because I think the larger problem, the bigger problem is overseas,” Walls said.

But police say Americans will keep getting beaten and robbed as long as the wireless industry continues to drag its feet. (Emphasis added.)

I know there is sometimes little good will between the cellular industry and the TV broadcasting industry due to spectrum issues like incentive auctions, so this is a small chance that NBC’s news operation was tainted by this antipathy. This would be rare, but one must admit the possibility.

Meanwhile, here is a YouTube video giving a similar consumer viewpoint:

CTIA actually has had something on their website about “lost or stolen phones”. “In response to Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), CTIA-The Wireless Association® President and CEO Steve Largent issued” a statement in August 2011 that deal with what consumers can do to protect the personal information in their phones. It does not deal with discouraging the theft of phones or assaults on smart phone users and lists nothing the industry is actually doing. Indeed it urges “Congress to not impose unnecessary regulations on the wireless industry that would cause unintended consequences.”

This is actually an area where FCC is speaking more about the issue than the industry. In a speech to the GSMA Mobile World Congress (the global forum for GSM-based and GSM-related systems) in February, Chmn. Genachowski said

Another area of challenge: stolen phones. There has been a sharp increase in the U.S. in thefts of mobile devices, particularly smartphones and tablets, endangering the safety of millions—both physical safety and the safety of the sensitive personal information stored on the device.

I commend the GSMA for establishing a database of phones that have been reported stolen so that those devices can’t be reactivated by someone else. I understand this has helped deter theft in European countries where carriers have signed up.

In the U.S., law enforcement officials are concerned that adequate systems don’t now exist to deter smartphone theft. This is a serious consumer issue, and we are taking it seriously

This afternoon, CTIA released the following YouTube video:

Mr. Walls this time assured viewers that “The industry is aggressively pursuing a technical solution that will render a stolen device useless. We’d like to make sure that happens in the U.S. and overseas markets… I want to remind you that the industry is very, very interested in developing these technical solutions.” He also reminds people they should use passwords. So is the US cellular industry waiting to enhance the safety of US smart phone users until it gets consensus with “Mexican service providers, Central American, South America, African, Chinese” as he said in the Today interview? Why do UK and Australia already have such protection?

I reiterate my view that the cellular industry needs to be more sensitive to consumer issues and not spend all its resources on political games within the Beltway.
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