Darlene Mickey is among a minority of cell phone users: She actually wants her wireless number listed with directory assistance.
"I live by my cell phone," said Mickey, an Arlington real estate agent who takes most of her calls from her car. "It's my lifeline for my business. I'd like my clients to be able to find me."
Almost 90 percent of the 160 million U.S. cell phone consumers have another opinion. They don't want their numbers listed, according to a survey by a market research firm. Nonetheless, the cell phone industry plans to launch a database to list numbers at customers' request.
Within the next few months, most customers will be asked by their carriers whether they want to be included in such a database of numbers and addresses. New customers will be asked when they sign up for service. Established customers can expect a form in the mail.
The directory service is scheduled to begin early next year. It would allow people to call directory assistance services such as 411 or 555-1212 to get cell phone numbers, along with wire-line phone numbers.
Consumer groups say that such a directory would open a door to unwanted marketing and other harassing calls that not only would hassle cell phone users but also cost them valuable minutes for incoming calls.
Members of Congress are considering bills to regulate the collection of cell phone information. And the chief executive of the nation's largest provider of wireless communications, Verizon Wireless, derided the directory assistance plan as a "dumb idea."
Verizon Wireless and the smaller U.S. Cellular have decided not to participate. Their customers won't be able to list their numbers through the new service, even if they want to.
"There's more reason today than ever for the wireless industry to protect customers' privacy," Verizon Wireless chief executive Denny Strigl said in a June speech, explaining the company's break from the rest of the industry. "The floodgates are open on spam, viruses, telemarketers . . . Customers view their cell phones as one place they don't face these intrusions."
Verizon Wireless's stand was a blow to the directory assistance effort.
"I think people find directories typically useful, but directories are only useful when the people they are looking for are in it," said Roger Entner, an analyst with Yankee Group Research Inc. "You already have a carrier with 25 percent market share opting out." He said Verizon Wireless may be attempting to reflect the sentiment of most of its customers but also may be wary that cell phone directory assistance may invite state regulation of the industry.
Other carriers, including Nextel Communications Inc., Sprint Corp. and Cingular Wireless, say many of their customers want to make their numbers available -- especially professionals such as taxi drivers and real estate agents. The idea is particularly appealing to the 8 million cell phone users who rely on the portable devices exclusively and don't have a traditional home line, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, which organized the directory assistance effort.
"There were literally millions of subscribers who were asking for this," said Steve Largent, president and chief executive of the CTIA. "I really believe at the end of the day that everybody will be participating."
He said 5 million to 6 million people already pay to list their cell phone numbers, typically paying a local telephone directory company $10 to $15 extra a month to do so.
Under the new system, listing a cell phone number with directory assistance would be free, as would be keeping a number unlisted. Consumers' numbers wouldn't be listed without their written consent, the trade group and participating carriers say. Numbers would be available only by calling directory assistance and wouldn't be published in a printed or online directory.
The industry says adding cell phones to the directory system wouldn't lead to more telemarketing calls because the database wouldn't be sold. Also, it's illegal for telemarketers to call potential customers' cell phones, although wireless companies acknowledge their customers sometimes get such calls anyway.
A caller seeking someone's cell phone number would call directory assistance, which would cost between 50 cents and $1.25, depending on the carrier. That's roughly what directory assistance charges to look up a conventional home or business number.
There's a catch: Callers would be charged the directory assistance fee even if the person they are seeking has an unlisted cell phone number. To get their money back, callers would have to call their phone company's customer service line, which could mean waiting on hold to request a credit, the CTIA said.
Some analysts doubt that cell phone directory assistance will become popular. Already, roughly 20 percent of U.S. households pay between 28 cents and $4.95 each month to keep their traditional phone numbers unlisted. Another 60 million numbers, both traditional and wireless, are registered with the federal government's do-not-call list, which is designed to block telemarketing calls.
But the directory service could become a big business, said Kathleen Pierz, managing partner of the Pierz Group LLC, a Clarkston, Mich., market research firm that studies the directory business.
Calls to 411, formerly a free service, have made money for phone companies. Carriers collect about $6 billion a year on directory assistance for traditional phones, Pierz said. She said adding cell phones could generate another $1.9 billion year, which would be shared by phone companies and the companies that administer the service for them.
Pierz said the idea is gradually gaining acceptance. About 10.5 percent of the cell phone users surveyed in her company's ongoing study said they would list their numbers -- up from 2 percent a year ago, she said. Consumers are still learning how the system works, and that education process will be a slow one, she said.
The survey found that more consumers might sign up if carriers took additional steps to protect privacy. Technologies could add layers of privacy -- allowing only those with passwords to get a phone number, or connecting calls without giving the number -- although the carriers aren't currently considering those measures, she said.
Cell phone user Russell Raub says he'll never give in.
"I guarantee you I will go to my grave never having opted in," said Raub, who lives outside of Gettysburg, Pa.
He's written three letters to AT&T Wireless Services Inc. expressing concern that the wording of his contract would allow the company to include him in a directory without notice. He's also written to his representatives in Congress asking for a law to protect his rights to keep his number private.
"What worries me is that someone that I may have no business or personal relationship [with] could start harvesting my number and start using it" at his expense in incoming minutes, Raub said. He pays about 70 cents a month to keep his home number unlisted and has both his cellular and home numbers in the do-not-call registry. AT&T Wireless assured him in an e-mail that he would be listed only if he wants to be, but he's worried that will change eventually.
Consumer groups share Raub's concern that the industry won't protect consumers' privacy and will eventually include customers' numbers automatically or charge them to keep their numbers unlisted.
"There's no guarantee -- that's why we want regulation," said Adam Goldberg, a spokesman for Consumers Union.
"As long as you're paying for that call, you should be able to control who's calling you," said Carl Hilliard, president of the Wireless Consumers Alliance, a consumer advocacy group near San Diego. "I don't know anyone who wants to get more calls."