War of words erupts between CTIA, FCC over 'bill shock'

There's quite a fight brewing between the FCC and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) over the concept of mobile phone "bill shock," and just how many customers have been surprised by an unexpectedly high mobile-phone bill. The issue could become more acute as operators institute tiered 3G and 4G pricing. Already, customers have been shocked to find that their heavy usage of video feeds and other bandwidth intensive applications have resulted in enormous mobile-phone bills.

In May, the FCC released the findings of a survey conducted by Abt/SRBI and Princeton Research Associates and concluded that 30 million Americans, or one in six US consumers, have experienced bill shock. The FCC defined bill shock as "a sudden increase in their monthly bill that is not caused by a change in service plan." 

CTIA called the FCC's data "inflammatory and "an orchestrated solution in search of a problem," and attempted to pick apart details of the survey last week.  The commission has responded on its official blog. "It's unfortunate that CTIA, which represents one of the country's most innovative and productive industries, has decided that ignoring or distorting the facts is a better strategy than simply addressing wireless customers' concerns," wrote the commission's Joel Gurin and John Horrigan.

The survey found that 84 percent of the 3,005 respondents surveyed who acknowledged experiencing some unhappiness at the size of their bill said their mobile carrier "did not contact them when they were about to exceed their allowed minutes, text messages, or data downloads." In addition, 88 percent indicated their operator didn't contact them after they received their high bill, which in one-third of the cases increased by $50.

CTIA Vice President Christopher Guttman-McCabe raised questions about the survey's methodology, including whether or not most of the respondents were teenagers.

"From what we can tell, only 902 of the respondents, when asked directly if they were 18 years or older, said 'yes'," Guttman-McCabe wrote. "Let me repeat--only 30 percent of the respondents said that they were over 18."

And none of the survey questions actually mention the term "bill shock," CTIA adds. "The term is an ends-driven invention by the FCC, not the survey company or the respondents. It was not part of the survey." Another criticism had to do with the wording that asked survey respondents whether their cell phone bill ever increased suddenly from one month to the next. McCabe charged that the question didn't "distinguish between a sudden increase based on a significant increase in use, or a change in use patterns."

"The association's latest attack on the FCC's study is based on an astounding misstatement: that as many as 70 percent of the people we interviewed were teenagers. This is simply untrue--in fact, we made it clear that we interviewed only adults," the FCC wrote.

For more:
- see this FCC blog
- read this ARS Technica article
- see this CTIA blog post

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