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Cell firms pledge not to cut off Katrina victims

The U.S. wireless industry pledged not to cut off customers who were uprooted last week by Hurricane Katrina and have not paid their cellphone bills.
/ Source: Reuters

The U.S. wireless industry pledged Wednesday it would not cut off customers who were uprooted last week by Hurricane Katrina and have not paid their cellphone bills.

The promise followed a reminder by the Federal Communications Commission to wireless companies about their commitment not to disconnect customers during disasters. The agency said consumers were concerned about being disconnected.

“I personally spoke to top executives of each of the major wireless carriers and they have pledged that no subscriber’s service in the region will be disconnected during this catastrophe for not paying their bills,” said Steve Largent, president of CTIA, a wireless industry association.

The FCC told wireless carriers in the area to file reports by Thursday verifying that they were complying with the practice of “maintaining service to people displaced by Hurricane Katrina despite failure to pay bills.”

Carriers were told by the FCC to provide reports by Thursday on the grace periods subscribers have or other relief the companies are providing.

The FCC has estimated that approximately 30 percent of the wireless communications cell sites in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi were not operational.

“There are still some outages, there’s no question, but I think we’re making good progress in getting the outages repaired,” said Bill Smith, chief technology officer at BellSouth Corp., which owns 40 percent of the No. 1 U.S. wireless carrier, Cingular Wireless. SBC Communications Inc. owns the rest of Cingular.

Cingular said it is not disconnecting customers and has suspended collections activities in the affected areas.

Verizon Wireless, the No. 2 carrier, told the FCC in a letter Wednesday that almost 300 of its 400 cell sites that were knocked out by the hurricane are back online and that it would not disconnect any customer because of nonpayment.

The company, which is a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group Plc, also said it had suspended taking automatic payments from customers’ bank accounts so the funds would be available to customers for other needs.