Federal Regulation of Cell Phone Companies

By Lena Freund

The federal government tests cellular devices for emissions before it allows private companies to sell them.
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The issue of federal regulation of private business is at the heart of the debate over large or small government. As of July 2011, the government’s communications arm--the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)--does not regulate the business practices of private cell phone companies such as Verizon, AT&T or Sprint. This means that the federal government does not oversee the terms of contracts or services that these companies provide to consumers. The government does, however, monitor the safety of the devices sold by these companies, in addition to handling wrongful business practice claims against them.

Radiofrequency Exposure

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 requires the FCC to investigate the effects of any emissions from cell phones on the human body. In August of 1996, the commission set maximum exposure limits on devices operating between 300 kHz and 100 GHz. Antennas used to broadcast cell phone services, along with television and radio, emit radiofrequencies. Theoretically, very high levels of this type of energy can heat human tissue, causing damage. Part of the commission’s job is to test those radiofrequency levels to determine whether or not human exposure is a significant health risk.


Although the FCC does not regulate terms and contracts issued by cell phone companies, it does process complaints from consumers about cell service providers. The complaint form prompts consumers to choose a complaint type, and then file their complaint electronically using the agency’s online complaint form. This form is not limited to complaints regarding cell phones and cell service; consumers can also file complaints about radio, television, broadband, VoIP, satellite or wireless phone issues.

Providing Consumer Information

The FCC is also tasked with providing consumer information regarding the safety of, and health concerns associated with, cellular devices. It is for this reason that the agency’s website contains several sections devoted to things such as radiofrequencies and suggestions for limiting exposure in everyday life. The agency also maintains a consumer information site providing advice on using cellular phones for adults, families and children and on avoiding unwanted communications and billing problems.

Tracking Cell Phones

In 2010, President Barack Obama’s administration announced that Americans have no reasonable expectation of privacy on their cell phones. Because of this, the federal government should be allowed to track the locations of all cell phones. In practice, most of these tracking operations are used in criminal investigations, according to CNET News, such as a time when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) tracked the location of a drug shipment through a cell phone.