By Producer
NBC News
updated 7/16/2004 7:34:51 PM ET 2004-07-16T23:34:51

Italians are used to strikes. In the last few months they had to survive -- at least for a few hours -- without buses, trains, planes, hospital workers, university teachers, magistrates and even security guards, who crossed their arms last December because of concerns about, believe it or not, personal security.

But the strike call for Thursday might have gone too far when consumer groups urged Italians to give up something they clearly can't live without, their mobile phones.

For the first time, a federation of consumer rights' associations asked Italians to switch off their cell phones for two hours.

The purpose of the boycott was to give a wake-up call to telephone companies by highlighting anger over increased call charges, rising costs of text messaging, the influx of spam in phone inboxes and confusion over how fees are applied for international calls.

According to a recent survey, Italy is the biggest consumer of mobile phones in Europe, with 57 million wireless numbers now active. Statistically speaking, that means there is a mobile phone for every Italian.

Those 57 million were called to revolt: “Switch off your phone,” the strike organizers, Intesa Consumatori, said in its appeal. “It’s the only way to resist to the temptation to answer calls, and a chance to put your ears –- now an appendix to telephones –- at rest.”

It would also be the best way to inflict damage to the telephone service providers.

If every cell phone user stopped making calls for two hours, the organizers calculated that the loss in profit would be approximately $620 million. In other words, the more silent Italians could be, the louder their message.

Italians not listening   
Italians, though, didn’t seem to be listening. Just after midday, the time the boycott started, the polyphonic tunes were still ringing loudly in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

A well-dressed couple of friends, apparently seeking relief from the unbearable summer sun, stood in the shade with their cell phones ready at hand.

When asked about the boycott, Angelo Boccardello, a 53-year-old diplomat from Rome, said he was unaware of it but that it sounded like a good idea.

Would he switch off his cell phone? “Sure I will, I never answer the phone between 12 and 2 p.m. anyway," said Boccardello, who explained it was when he has a meal.

Seconds later, his phone rang, and he answered it promptly, greeting his caller in a typically loud Italian manner.

When quizzed about breaking his vow of cell phone silence, he replied, ”I didn’t realize it was 12 o’clock already.”

His friend Gabriele Tecchiato, a 27-year-old librarian from Latina, a town on the outskirts of Rome, was more realistic.

”I don’t see the point [of the the strike],  two hours wouldn’t make any difference. And anyway, the situation is not that bad,” he said. “We are lucky if we compare ourselves to countries like Russia, where they can’t even receive calls when they run out of credit.”

Consumer rights advocates see some success
Despite Boccardello and Tecchiato's ignorance of the strike, some Italians must have gotten the message about it.

Stefano Zerbi, spokesman for Codacons, part of the consumer rights federation, told MSNBC.com that a fifth of respondents surveyed by the organization had switched off their phones during the period. 

“With the right exposure, it could have been twice that number,” Zerbi said.

The biggest obstacle to the initiative’s success, Zerbi explained, was the fact that not many people were aware of it.

He blamed this media's silence. ”Very few newspapers reported it,” said Zerbi. “It’s hardly surprising: most of them make a living out of phone company’s advertisements.”

If the cell phone companies will not sit down at the table to discuss the consumers association’s requests, Zerbi said, Italians will next be asked to switch off their phones for a whole 24 hours.

Based on the lackluster response to the two-hour boycott Thursday, it's unclear if Italians are ready to answer such a call.

Claudio Lavanga is an NBC News producer based in Rome.

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