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FCC to hold hearing on early termination fees

The Federal Communications Commission will discuss a proposal Thursday to limit early termination fees for cell phone users.

The Federal Communications Commission will discuss a proposal at an open meeting Thursday that could reduce the cost of getting out of your cell phone contract.

The industry-sponsored proposal would give new cell phone customers a 30-day grace period to cancel their contracts without penalty. After those 30 days, early termination charges would then be pro-rated over the life of the contract. This means customers who want out of their contract in month 20 would pay less than those cancelling their service after only four months.

Cell phone operators have argued that they must impose early termination penalties on contracts because they subsidize the cost of the handsets. And to recoup the cost, the operators must be guaranteed a certain amount of service revenue.

AT&T and Apple just announced this week that the new iPhone 3G will be offered in this way. AT&T customers will be required to sign a two-year contract in exchange for the subsidy, which brings the cost of the new 8GB of the phone down to $199.

Customers who bought the first iPhone were also required to have a two-year contract with AT&T despite the fact that the phones were not subsidized.

In the eyes of many consumers these early termination restrictions are unfair and hamper competition. And thousands of them have banded together to file class-action lawsuits.

Check back on Thursday for coverage of the FCC hearing, which begins at 7 a.m. PDT.