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Mad as #$*@ at Your Cell-Phone Contract?

Wireless customers are due for a break on high fees for early termination.

Apple's iPhone caused a furor when it debuted this past summer -- and we're not talking about the cool technology or the eye-popping price tag. The phone, which can be used only on AT&T's calling plan, is also a glaring reminder of what cell-phone users hate most about wireless: They can't get out of their contract without paying through the nose -- typically $175 to $200, sometimes per family member -- or take their phone to another network. Restrictive arbitration agreements usually mean they can't even complain to a judge.

That's about to change. "Things are heating up big-time -- at the Federal Communications Commission, in the courts and in Congress," says Chris Murray, a telecom expert at Consumers Union. Courts in California have refused to enforce arbitration clauses that block class- action lawsuits or sanction early-termination fees. An FCC auction of a coveted spectrum of the airwaves in January could further spread mobile delivery of e-mail, music, navigation and other features. A bill in Congress would give consumers 30 days to exit contracts without a fee and would require companies to prorate early-termination fees (Verizon does that already) for customers who leave afterward.

Meanwhile, the best way to wiggle out of your contract is to trade it online. Try or Read the notices you get in the mail -- if a contract change is not in your favor, you may have a couple of weeks to opt out without a charge.