Mobile charges: the shape of things to come‾

Florida's Attorney General has fined AT&T US$2.5 million and ordered the operator to pay compensation to customers wrongly billed for use of mobile content services. AT&T will contribute an additional US$500,000 toward consumers' education about safe Internet use.

Thousands of consumers had complained about charges on their phone bills for third-party services that they did not authorise. Often ringtones and other services were advertised as 'free,' but resulted in customers inadvertently signing up for expensive monthly subscriptions for content.

The state's justice authority is also starting investigations into similar practices at Verizon, Sprint Nextel, Alltel and T-Mobile. AT&T Mobility has agreed to adopt and enforce strict standards for Internet advertising developed by the Florida CyberFraud Task Force. The operator, through its contracts with the content providers and advertisers, will now insist that those companies clearly and conspicuously disclose the true cost involved and itemise the charges on the consumers' monthly bill.

It remains to be seen whether this approach will be adopted in Europe, where the UK's mobile market has been rocked by a series of scandals concerning mobile phone charges. The latest to hit the headlines is a 63 year old director who has been presented with a bill for £11,000/€14,365 by Vodafone. Seeing that he had an unlimited bandwidth bundle, his wife started to download four episodes of the comedy TV series Friends, without realising how long it would take. The always-on device continued the downloads when her husband was in Germany on business, without him knowing. Vodafone failed to alert him until he returned to the UK.

Ed Richards, CEO of the UK regulator Ofcom announced, "We will be looking to take action.' In previous cases this has only amounted to public outrage obliging the operators to cancel such unwitting debts, rather than the regulator imposing punitive measures or insisting that safeguards are in place.

However, the incident will add grist to European Union's Commissioner for Information Society and Media, Viviane Redding, who is threatening to take action against operators unless they reduce their data roaming charges voluntarily.