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Technology

Issue: "Ronald Reagan: In memoriam," June 19, 2004

Wireless, but clueless?

Cell phones are about as widespread as dissatisfaction with providers of cell service. Despite the proliferation of wireless companies, mobile-phone service was the second-lowest-ranked industry (only slightly better than local cable monopolies) in a consumer satisfaction study conducted by the University of Michigan.

Cellular providers also finished second (to auto dealerships) in complaints to Better Business Bureaus. Fees are one huge part of the problem. Just for the privilege of phone-number portability, Verizon Wireless alone charges customers more than $173 million a year in fees. Disgruntled users also gripe about dropped calls and poor customer service. Mobile providers insist they are improving service, buying new networks, and correcting billing and customer-service problems. Sprint PCS even admitted the problem by taking out newspaper ads asking, "What if the rest of the world were like the wireless industry?"

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This negativity creates an opening for pro-regulation activists and lobbyists to rise up in the name of protecting consumers. California last month adopted a Telecommunications Bill of Rights that may be a model for other states. Among other things, it gives dissatisfied consumers the right to cancel wireless service within 30 days of signing a contract. Some carriers complain that such measures will add new layers of bureaucracy that ultimately will lead to higher phone bills.

Name, rank, and password

Millions rattle off their usernames and passwords every day without a second thought, hoping that this bit of security is enough to protect their privacy. Increasingly, it's not.

One problem is that some use obvious passwords like "password," "hello," or "123456"-or common dictionary words. Often users will provide the same code on numerous sites, multiplying their security risks. Some people share logins (particularly when accessing news sites), which also can lead to security problems.

Sites are turning to "password plus" or two-factor security. Sweden's Nordea bank, for example, provides scratch-off cards that reveal secret codes that users enter on their keyboards. MasterCard is testing a system overseas in which users swipe their credit cards through a special reader to receive a password that works on participating merchants' sites.

A common two-factor system in the United States is RSA Security's venerable SecurID system. Each user carries a keychain-like device that regularly displays a PIN number that constantly changes, thus thwarting onlookers. The company is now testing a new version that works on Windows-based systems.

BITS & MEGABYTES

By Chris Stamper

>>Google is preparing to launch its Gmail e-mail service. Accounts are free, but users will see ads based on keywords inside their messages, an innovation that raises obvious privacy concerns. Google promises not to sell personal data to third parties.

>>Cell-phone pioneer Craig McCaw is launching Clearwire, a wireless broadband service. Tests begin this summer in Jacksonville, Fla., and St. Cloud, Minn. Clearwire has purchased spectrum space to serve 100 markets.

>>Federal officials closed an anti trust probe into Movielink, a video-on-demand startup created by five Hollywood studios. Critics complained that the joint venture might reduce competition and raise prices, but the Justice Department investigators found insufficient ­evidence of collusion.

>>Sony plans to quit selling its Clie line of PDAs outside of Japan. The product lost market share to more powerful all-in-one PDA cell phones.

>>The European Union's antitrust chief defended his decision against Microsoft. Competition Commissioner Mario Monti wants the software giant to release a stripped version of Windows and share some proprietary server code. The U.S. Justice Department labeled the ruling -which levies a $606 million fine-bad for competition and innovation.

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