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FCC weighs alerts for mounting cellphone charges

One thing my readers truly dislike is surprises in their cellphone bill. The Federal Communications Commission hears those complaints as well and is exploring a way to warn wireless users when they are on their way to higher charges.

The FCC said Tuesday it will look at methods such as text message alerts used in Europe to warn customers when they incur roaming or data charges that aren’t part of their normal plan.

“We’ve gotten hundreds of complains about bill shock,” said Joel Gurin, the FCC’s newly appointed chief of the bureau on consumer and governmental affairs. “But this is an avoidable problem. Avoiding bill shock is good for consumers and ultimately good business for wireless carriers as well.”

Gurin said the proposed idea, which is in a public notice, was the first to come out of his task force to address consumer issues. His bureau is also looking at early termination fees, which he described as "murky" territory, because the charges aren't always clear to consumers and in some cases those charges have increased in recent months.

Those penalities, imposed by cell phone operators, can keep users in contracts with carriers even if they move to an area where service from that carrier isn't available. Carriers such as Verizon Wireles, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile have argued that their early cancellation fees are necessary to recover the costs of offering discounted, or subsidized, handsets. Gurin said his group is also looking at similar penalites for users who cancel bundled cable packages.

In the European Union, carriers are required by law to send text messages to consumers who are getting close to a set limit for data roaming. For users in the U.S., the costs of roaming outside the network of their carrier of choice or using their phone outside the country can add up to shocking charges on the monthly bill.

Wireless trade group, CTIA, said in a statement that their members can track their minutes and data usage by typing in key words like *min and #data into their phones. They can also call about their plans.

“We look forward to educating the Commission on all of the carriers’ activities and offerings so that customers can stay informed," said CTIA president Steve Largent in a statement. "Even though the ‘hundreds of complaints’ that the public notice references is less than four ten-thousandths of a percentage of the industry's total subscribers, the industry strives to serve and provide all of our 285 million customers with the necessary tools to have a positive experience."

The announcement today is just a first step. The public will have a chance to weigh in on the idea and then a FCC could proceed with a proposed rule that would go up for vote at the five-member agency.

By Cecilia Kang  |  May 11, 2010; 10:46 AM ET
Categories:  Consumers , FCC  
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Comments

In an era when the marginal cost to the carriers for each gigabyte transported is measured in pennies, it is downright malicious for those same carriers to impose ´gotcha´ consumer pricing schemes that impose a million-fold markup on their actual costs.

It´s well past time that the FCC curb this practice.

Posted by: kcx7 | May 11, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't seem like it would be hard to do. I have a prepaid cell phone and whenever I make a call it announces how many minutes I have left.

Posted by: jimbo1949 | May 11, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

But, would the person who does not read contracts or terms of service read the warning texts and take them seriously?

Posted by: query0 | May 11, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

I am a big supporter of free markets and big business, but I support requiring wireless operators to offer the free option of warning texts at user-settable limits of voice minutes, data megabytes, and dollars. Yes, you should be able to read your contract and keep track, and yes, you can type in and get your balance, but I still want a warning just in case.

Posted by: ObamasGulfResponseIsMuchWorseThanKatrina | May 11, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Sprint customers seeking to avoid a billing surprise can get an update running tally of their minutes, text messages, picture mail and data used by calling *4 from their phone. The automated readout can also be texted to customers.

That's just one thing we already do to address the problem the FCC is describing. To learn more, visit http://post.ly/fcpa

John Taylor
Public Affairs
Sprint Nextel Corp.

Posted by: John_Taylor | May 12, 2010 1:43 AM | Report abuse

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