SAN ANTONIO – It may be something of a teenage nightmare: limits on when a wireless phone can make and receive calls and to whom, restrictions on text messages and talk time, and set allowances for ring tones and other downloads — all at a parent's fingertips.
AT&T Inc. (T), the nation's largest wireless carrier, will launch a service Tuesday giving parents that kind of wide-ranging control on almost all of its 63.7 million subscriber lines.
"We were certainly hearing from parents who were dismayed at overuse of text or phones," said Carlton Hill, vice president of voice products for AT&T's wireless unit and the mother of two teenagers. "We want to find a way for kids to use phones without having to take the phone away."
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Many parents want their children to have access to cell phones for safety reasons, but they don't want them making or receiving non-emergency calls during the school day, chatting away all the shared family-plan minutes or bloating the bill with text messaging charges, Hill said.
Several upstarts have tried tackling the market for limited phones, including Enfora Inc.'s TicTalk and Firefly Mobile Inc. which offer handsets for children.
Disney Mobile, launched by The Walt Disney Co. (DIS) in June 2006, offers many of the same functions as AT&T's new service, but parents must sign up with the carrier.
Disney phones also include a GPS function that allows parents to physically locate their kids' handset, a feature not available from AT&T.
AT&T's Smart Limits service will be offered as an add-on for $4.99 per month per line. No contract will be required, and it will work on all but a handful of customer lines left on an old network the company is phasing out.
The functions, ranging from call blocking and hour limits to text message and download allowances, will be set through a Web site. Calls to or from a parent's number can be made to override the restrictions, and calls to 911 can be made anytime.
The AT&T service also allows filtering of Web sites parents don't want their children accessing from their phones, but that function will not work on Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) iPhone because of the browser, said AT&T spokesman Fletcher Cook.
The Web site filter will also be inoperable when a phone is using a Wi-Fi network because AT&T can only block content delivered over its wireless networks.
The Smart Limits service will be marketed to AT&T's existing family plan customers and through advertising in parent magazines, Hill said, but because it is available throughout the AT&T network, the service can also be used by business customers or individuals looking to block and limit certain callers or hours of incoming calls.
"We expect over time to see other segments open up," Hill said.
But the target subjects of Smart Limits — chatty teens and tweens who are fluent in text messaging — are unlikely to be thrilled with the new controls.
"Kids won't like it all," said 16-year-old Alex Wall, who was shopping for a new phone with his mom at a San Antonio AT&T store last week.
The high school sophomore said classmates talk and text throughout the day, even though it's against school rules. And although, he's not a heavy talker or texter, he wouldn't want to see too many restrictions.
His mother, Franze Wall, said she can see the appeal of being able to set such limits, but she probably wouldn't use them because she sees it as a trust issue with her sons.
"That's good," Alex joked.
But Marcia McKinley, who paid several $400 phone bills run up by her son whose now in college, said the idea of being able to set limits is great.
"It's almost like having another parent," she said.
Hill started limiting her own teens' phones about four months ago as the company was testing the service before launch.
They weren't thrilled with the new limits, but Hill said they came around when they realized the restrictions were less draconian than having their phones confiscated.
Electronic rights groups have raised concerns about GPS-enabled phones like the ones offered by Disney because of potential for misuse in custody disputes or other court issues, said Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But limits on things like calling hours and text messaging are parenting choices, she said.
She noted parents should probably remember electronic limits won't be foolproof, though.
"When it comes to technology, kids are smarter than you," she said, laughing.