R-rring, R-rring. Please Deposit $4 for This Call

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It’s a question Rex Harrison might ask of these super-connected '90s: Why can’t a cell phone be more like a land line? Well, the FCC is working on it, proposing new rules Thursday that would allow wireless service carriers to charge only the caller for calls, the way they do with traditional service, where simply answering the phone doesn’t cost you. It makes sense, not only karmically but commercially: By taking away one of the last financial stigmas surrounding the already ubiquitous cell phone -- Why the heck should I pay when someone else calls me? -- the wireless as bona fide substitute may have finally arrived.

Of course, someone still has to pay the premium for the carriers’ investment in wireless technology (and for allowing you to act like a movie mogul). So part of the FCC’s plan is to provide an automated message telling the caller that he/she is calling a cell phone, and that the carrier is about to take the extra money -- besides the dime or so it costs to use a land line -- out of his/her hide. The FCC’s changes, due early in 2000, won’t be irrevocable; the option of caller-only billing would be up to carriers, and therefore up to consumers. But the agency is betting that making the cell phone a little more familiar to traditionalists will increase use and competition, driving down rates. What's next? The coin-operated Nokia?