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Regulators go after wireless spam

The Federal Communications Commission has begun crafting rules to head off a possible tidal wave of unwanted e-mails sent to cell phones.

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday set a late 2004 deadline to decide what, if anything, to do about unsolicited e-mails sent to cell phones and other portable Internet-connected devices.

The commission voted unanimously to begin soliciting public opinion about possible regulations. It expects to wrap up the work sometime in September, according to K. Dan Snowden, chief of the FCC's Consumer Information Bureau.

Unwanted e-mail to cell phones, smart phones and Internet-enabled personal digital assistants is now nowhere near the overwhelming problem it is on personal computers, where 62 percent of all mail is unsolicited, estimates e-mail filter company BrightMail. But as Internet-enabled cell phones become the norm, regulators and lawmakers fear that the current controls used by cell phone service providers to limit spam will become less effective.

"We've seen what spam can do to PC world, nobody wants to see that happen to mobile phones," FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said.

Because cell phone service providers charge for incoming e-mail, spam sent to wireless devices poses a more tangible economic impact than PC spam, where e-mail is free. The potential for such an uncontrollable expense has played a role in keeping corporations and consumers from using wireless data service, analysts say.

The cell phone industry welcomes the inquiry, according to a spokesman at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. The CTIA spokesman added that most U.S. cell phones already use "smart filters" to limit the number of unsolicited e-mails a wireless device can receive.