Wireless feature requires opt-out from customers

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) ACS Wireless and MTA Wireless both recently added voice-activated dialing to their calling features, and are offering it free to customers for a trial period.

The tricky part, known as opt-out marketing, means if customers ignore the offer, they will end up paying $2 a month for it.

The practice is perfectly legal, according to the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates wireless telephone companies. Cell phone companies can add calling features to customers' existing service plans and require them to opt-out of them as long as they clearly disclose the terms in writing and notify customers.

The add-on feature at issue allows customers to simply speak the name of the person being called rather than dial the number.

ACS Wireless, which introduced its Voice Connect service in early March, has twice sent out fliers tucked into monthly bills, notifying its 82,000 subscribers that they would automatically be billed for the new service unless they canceled it, according to Mary Anne Pease, a spokeswoman for the Anchorage-based company.

ACS is a unit of Alaska Communications Systems, which also provides local and long-distance phone service as well as Internet access.

ACS also did two mass mailings, sending postcards to customers advising them about the service and the need to opt out if they didn't want it, Pease said.

But Helen Clough, an ACS Wireless customer in Juneau, said she never saw the bill stuffers. And she nearly pitched the postcard in the trash because she thought it was junk mail.

On the outside of the card is a picture of an ACS Wireless phone with floppy dog ears and a tail. To the right of the picture it says, Stay? Want to keep Voice Connect? It's your choice.''

Inside is more information about the Voice Connect service and a postage-paid form to mail if you want to opt out.

It's totally deceptive,'' Clough said. There's nothing on the outside to indicate that money's involved.''

MTA Wireless also has sent bill stuffers to its roughly 8,000 customers from Talkeetna to Eagle River, as well as a letter describing the service, which it calls Talk to Me VoiceDial, company spokeswoman Jackie Whitstine said.

MTA Wireless is a unit of Matanuska Telephone Association, which also provides regular phone and Internet service.

The letter, mailed in a regular MTA envelope, also includes an opt-out form that can be mailed back with your next phone bill.

Both companies are providing the service in partnership with an outfit called Preferred Voice, which supplies the computer hardware, software and billing systems that make it work. Neither ACS nor MTA is bearing any of those costs. Dallas-based Preferred Voice takes a cut of the fees for the service.

Mary Merritt, Preferred Voice's vice president of finance, said the company requires most of its customers to use opt-out marketing.

It's so we get a return on the investment in our technology,'' she said.

The free trial period for ACS Wireless' voice-activated dialing service is over at the end of May. June 14 will be the end of MTA's free-use period.

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