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Posted at 10:47 AM ET, 12/ 6/2010

Q&A: FCC Consumer Chief Gurin on cell phone bills

By Cecilia Kang

Verizon launched its high-speed data network Sunday in 38 markets. Clearwire, a competitor, sold $1.2 billion in debt to stay in the race for wireless users who want to use their gadgets for speedy Web connections. All this means fourth-generation (4G) mobile technology has arrived, but questions remain on how consumers will pay for those services.

Check out our story from last week about how 4G mobile services will present a bevvy of new services -- and charges -- for wireless customers.

Joel Gurin, head of the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, talked to Post Tech last week about how the nation’s regulator of wireless providers is thinking about cell phone bills going forward. The FCC has proposed a regulation requiring carriers to warn users when they are about to go over limits.

Here’s an edited version of our chat:

Q: How will the FCC approach consumer protection as cell phone bills potentially become a lot more confusing?

A: Our goal in everything we are doing now is ensuring that consumers have what they need to make hard choices at every decision stage. At the decision where they choose a provider, choose a plan and monitor the deal.

From the transition to 4G, we will need to watch and learn. On the specific issue of bill shock, any move from unlimited tiered plans with caps clearly underscores the need for the kinds of alerts we now have as a proposed rule-making.

Q: It appears that all carriers are moving toward tiered usage pricing -- and Verizon is even contemplating tiers based on speeds. How does that affect users?

A: If you are on a plan where you have a limit and overcharges with that limit, bill shock is more of a concern. When AT&T began moving in that direction, they put in place some very strong provisions about alerting people when they got close to reaching limits. Bill shock will be a focus for us and particularly as we move toward more usage pricing.

Q: One problem is that users don’t know how much data they are using. For example, how much data does a user consume when they watch a streaming episode of “Mad Men?”

A: There are two answers to that. We’re looking at all aspects of consumer information services and the question of how services are communicated to consumers. It’s a fair question, but I can’t say more. But that it is on our radar.

On that issue, similar issues come up with broadband speed. As you know, we are doing national tests with the company Sam Knows. We are doing hardware tests of broadband speeds. Whole effort on broadband is to look at how people understand speed.

Q: What about early termination fees? It seemed like you guys were going to move on that. What happened?

A: To be seen. Can’t tell you where we might go on that. I can tell you that our biggest focus on ETFs has been to ensure that consumers are aware of what they are obligated and how the ETF is rendered. We have been looking at ETFs in the context of disclosure and transparency. You can say we are continuing to look at ETFs within that framework.

Related stories:
Sen. Klobuchar wants more vigorous FCC oversight of cell phone bills

Verizon Wireless settles with FCC over mystery fees

By Cecilia Kang  | December 6, 2010; 10:47 AM ET
Categories:  Consumers, FCC  
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