The four largest wireless carriers serving the island banded together Thursday to express their concern over House Bill 1956 that seeks to create a registry of prepaid phone numbers in an attempt to keep track of the devices that have become a conduit for criminal activity.
In a joint statement, representatives from T-Mobile, AT&T, Claro and Sprint said the measure would not only undermine the strengthening and growth of small and medium businesses — which would suppose a direct impact on the economy — but would be almost impossible to implement.
The carriers put forth several reasons for their opposition to the bill, starting with the fact that a law already exists establishing public policy to prevent unauthorized communications between people admitted to penal and juvenile institutions and allows implementing technology in prisons to stop any unlawful use of wireless devices on the premises.
“However, the government has not allocated resources for this program. The solution exists, no further legislation is needed,” said the statement signed by Frances Rodríguez, Irmarie Cervera, Yoli Torres-Cuesta and Ray Flores, spokespeople for T-Mobile, Claro, Sprint and AT&T.
Prepaid handsets, which allow users to buy minutes without a contract and often recharge minutes over the Internet, are the preferred option for criminals looking to continue running their illegal business while serving time.
“Wireless service providers work daily with federal, state and local investigations of criminal activity. The companies are able to apply the same tools and technologies to assist the police in combating criminal activity regardless of whether the criminals are using prepaid or postpaid mobile service,” the companies said.
The House passed a conference committee report on the bill Monday, sending it on its way to La Fortaleza for Gov. Luis Fortuño’s approval.
Black market would flourish
Meanwhile, the carriers also said the bill would result in the black market smuggling of unregistered mobile phones and would make it difficult to track and monitor those phones if they are used for criminal activity. Furthermore, women who are victims of domestic violence and victims of other crimes that need anonymity lose an important means of communication, they said.
“The bill is ambiguous about the handling of customer’s personal and confidential information obtained from the driver’s license and other ID’s. This mechanism is suitable for the mishandling of information, increasing the risk of it falling into the wrong hands,” the carriers noted.
‘Bureaucratizing’ phone sales
One aspect of the proposed bill, fining consumers by as much as $10,000 for failing to register their existing prepaid phones, could unfairly punish innocent consumers. It is estimated that there are more than 800,000 prepaid customers in Puerto Rico, which would make the registry process nearly impossible to implement.
“The project bureaucratizes the sale of handsets, which will adversely affect telephone penetration [in Puerto Rico], which is the lowest in Latin America and the United States,” said the companies, who in their opposition join the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce and the United Retailers Association in the concern over Bill 1956’s potential repercussions.
However, the carriers emphasized their readiness for dialogue with relevant government agencies and other organizations to contribute effectively in the fight against crime.
“Companies are looking to continue their dialogue with the government to discuss in greater depth the negative implications of Bill 1956 for consumers and at the same time, discuss how we can help in the fight against crime, an issue that affects us all,” the statement said.
So far, there are no similar laws in effect in any U.S. jurisdiction related to this matter. Similar proposals have been studied and rejected in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas. The companies also referred to the availability of technology to effectively eliminate cellphone contraband in prisons, as proposed in Mississippi through its Operation CellBlock initiative.