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Sunday, May 16, 2010

FCC Wants Wireless Carriers to Warn Consumers of Jacked-Up Bills


The Federal Communications Commission wants wireless carriers to notify their customers before they reach roaming or data usage limits under their wireless service plans, a move to staunch the "bill shock" syndrome that is plaguing the nation.

Bill shock is, quite simply, the unfortunate experience of getting a wireless phone bill that was higher than expected.

Joel Gurin, chief of the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau set up by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in January, told media on a conference call May 11 that the FCC has fielded hundreds of complaints about bill shock.

While Gurin stressed that his group is not "cracking down" on bill shock, the FCC is raising questions about the issue.

"We are hearing from consumers about unpleasant surprises on their bills," Gurin said, citing unclear or misunderstood advertising, unanticipated roaming or data charges, and other problems as causes for bill shock. "But this is an avoidable problem. Avoiding bill shock is good for consumers and ultimately good business for wireless carriers as well."

One remedy for bill shock is to ask wireless carriers such as Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile to send their customers a short text message warning them that they are approaching their roaming and data usage limits.

This approach takes a page from the playbook of the European Union, which requires carriers such as Vodafone to text subscribers who are racking up roaming charges or getting close to a set limit for data roaming.

"Our sense is that this has not been a particularly difficult thing to implement in the EU ... and that the same principle seems to us like it could be applied very well in the U.S," Gurin said.

public notice to determine whether or not wireless carriers in the United States can follow Europe's lead.

Gurin said he and his team want to find out from carriers if U.S. providers are already offering such usage alerts, as well as how much they cost to the consumer or the provider.

They also want to know whether technological or other differences exist that would prevent U.S. wireless providers from employing usage alerts similar to those now required by the EU.

The FCC further wants to learn how consumers can now monitor their wireless usage and know when they are exceeding their predetermined allocations of voice minutes, text messages or data usage.

"We really think that consumers should have the same kind of transparency of information when it comes to all kinds of communications services, including broadcast, cable, broadband and other services they may buy, not just wireless and wireline," Gurin said on the call May 11.

The inquiry into bill shock is just the start.