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Roaming data stirs up controversy

A Web site voluntarily removes information about the roaming plans of Verizon Wireless customers, which some believe showed the carrier's coverage area is shrinking.

A Web site has voluntarily removed information it posted about the roaming plans of Verizon Wireless customers, which some believe showed the carrier's coverage area is shrinking.

The site agreed to remove the information after being contacted by Verizon Wireless on Aug. 9, according to Verizon Wireless spokesman Brian Wood.

Verizon Wireless was objecting to the posting of what it said was a "preferred roaming list" or PRL, which shows the carriers that are responsible for coverage in a geographic area for a particular phone. For example, using a PRL a customer could look up the route of a four-hour trip and see that some areas have no coverage while several carriers trade off coverage for other areas. However, actual PRLs appear as a series of numbers and abbreviations that are difficult for the layperson to translate.

The publisher, who requested anonymity, initially posted the information because "I'm actually kind of a fan of Verizon Wireless," and wanted to inform people about where the cell phone service is available, not to illustrate its weaknesses.

"I was trying to show where it did work, not where it didn't work," the publisher said during a telephone interview Thursday.

Verizon Wireless asked that the information be removed because PRLs are supposed to be confidential, according to spokesman Brian Wood. If public, they could give away information considered vital to Verizon Wireless.

Wood did not elaborate on why it's important to keep the information confidential, but generally cell phone policies allow customers to cancel their contracts if the terms change.

"It's not something we want published on a Web site," Wood said. "I can't think of any reason why customers would need this information. If you need to know where you're phone works, just call customer service."

But participants in an online chat board believe there is a possibly darker Verizon Wireless motivation.

According to messages on the chat board, some participants noted that wireless carriers have canceled their roaming agreements with Verizon Wireless, spurring debate about whether the coverage area had changed.

Wood denied there was any change in coverage area.

Reverse engineering or just theft?
Wood and the publisher disagree on whether the information that had been posted was accurate. The publisher said all the data was available online, while Wood said he refuses to believe that the anyone was able to "reverse engineer" the listings from that information.

"You might be able to make a stab at it," Wood said. "But look at the detail (that was once posted on the site.) There's stuff there beyond the PRL."

The debate has sparked at least one organization to question whether Verizon has the right to insist the information remain private.

"So long as the sources (the publisher) used were public information and (the publisher) had no reason to suspect they were stolen, they've got a right to publish. That's what the First Amendment is all about," said Fred Von Lohman, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group.

The Federal Communications Commission said it does not have any regulations on publicizing the details of coverage areas.

The same site reportedly posted similar listings of Sprint PCS. A Sprint PCS spokesman declined comment.

The Verizon Wireless spokesman said it asked another Web site, which linked to the controversial information, to remove the link.