by David Lazarus
Cingular, the country's largest wireless service provider, boasts that
it's the only carrier that allows customers to roll over unused
minutes from one month to the next.
But be careful if you decide to switch Cingular plans. Those unused
minutes no longer roll very far.
Lafayette resident Claudia Valas learned this recently when she
attempted to rejigger her Cingular plan to accommodate what has now
ballooned to a surplus of more than 10,000 extra minutes.
Valas, 53, runs a small book-publishing company and had originally
signed up for a wireless plan that offered 900 minutes for $59.99
monthly, plus $9.99 for each additional phone sharing the account.
However, she discovered in March that the plan wasn't providing enough
minutes for her and two employees, so she upgraded to a plan offering
2,000 minutes for $99.99 a month.
But that ended up being too much. By August, Valas said, she'd accrued
about 4,000 extra minutes and had contacted Cingular about switching
once again to a more suitable plan.
"The person I spoke with said they didn't have a comparable plan at
that time," Valas recalled. "She advised me to stick with my current
plan, run up even more minutes, and then switch to something a lot
cheaper and use up the minutes over following months."
Good advice. Or so Valas thought.
By December, her account was carrying nearly 9,000 extra minutes, and
Valas once more contacted Cingular about making a switch.
"This time, they said I could change plans, but I could only bring
with me a small portion of the minutes," she said. "They said that
since the last time I'd spoken with them, the company had changed its
Indeed, Cingular rewrote its policy in October -- and never bothered
to inform customers of the change.
Previously, all unused rollover minutes would follow a customer from
plan to plan. Now, the most that customers can bring with them is the
equivalent of a single month's minutes.
In other words, if you switch to a plan offering 500 minutes a month,
you can bring only 500 minutes from your previous plan, even if your
total unused minutes is almost 20 times that amount (as is the case
"That doesn't seem right," Valas told me. "Those are my minutes. I
paid for them. You can't just take them away."
Au contraire. Cingular, like most wireless carriers, declares up front
that it can pretty much do anything it wants.
In its contracts, the company says it "reserves the right to change or
modify any of the terms and conditions contained in this agreement or
any policy or guideline referenced herein at any time and in its sole
Lauren Garner, a Cingular spokeswoman, said the company changed its
rollover policy "to ensure that rollover is used fairly."
She declined to comment on why it's "unfair" for customers to switch
to less-expensive plans as they burn off unused minutes. But Garner
said the change "allows us to keep this competitive advantage for our
(To be fair, it also prevents any sharpies from scoring thousands of
minutes in a single month and then deliberately switching to a
bargain-basement plan and enjoying cheap service for a year.)
Representatives of other wireless carriers said they don't offer
rollover minutes because they've found that customers who accrue
additional minutes each month probably aren't in the most suitable
plan for their needs.
Garner said Cingular never notified customers of the policy change
because "only a small percentage" seeks in any given year to downgrade
to lower-minute plans.
She declined to be more specific about how many of Cingular's more
than 54 million customers were affected by the change.
As it happens, the California Public Utilities Commission is
revisiting the notion of a telecommunications bill of rights for
The PUC suspended its last stab at creating a telecom bill of rights a
year ago after the wireless industry complained that the regulations
were too burdensome -- such as having to clearly explain all rates and
fees, and being required to print contracts in a legible type size.
Next month, the commission is scheduled to vote on a new-and-improved
bill of rights. Of the two proposals on the table, PUC President
Michael Peevey's version is seen as having the highest likelihood of
Unfortunately, Peevey's plan focuses more on what consumers should
expect from a telecom company, as opposed to what the company must
do. It also makes the state, not the industry, more responsible for
educating people about telecom issues.
The Peevey plan was originally drafted by Susan Kennedy, a former PUC
member who now works as chief of staff for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Peevey was unavailable for comment.
A more consumer-friendly bill of rights has been crafted by PUC member
Dian Grueneich. Among other things, it restores the original bill's
requirements that contract terms be explained clearly, and that
customers be able to cancel contracts within 30 days.
"Mine are actual obligations," Grueneich told me. "President Peevey's
are rights that consumers should have."
She noted that in 2004, complaints against wireless carriers soared by
63 percent, while growth in overall subscribers rose by just 15
"That tells me we need enforceable rules to protect consumers,"
However, PUC insiders say her plan lacks political support from other
commissioners and is likely to be shot down when the matter comes up
for a vote on March 2.
Here's the thing: If Grueneich's bill of rights had been in effect
when Cingular changed its rollover policy, it's likely that Valas and
other customers would have known in advance that they'd have to act
fast if they wanted to keep their minutes.
Now it looks like they're stuck (although Cingular's Garner said the
company will try to help anyone who received misleading info from a
Valas said she'll probably end up switching to a more sensible plan
and throwing away thousands of already-paid-for minutes. But she isn't
happy about it.
"It's like putting money in the bank and then not being able to
withdraw it because they changed the rules," Valas said. "It's wrong."
David Lazarus' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Send tips
or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2006 San Francisco Chronicle