FCC moves forward on 'bill shock' rules

The FCC voted to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking that will seek comment on whether to require wireless carriers to provide usage alerts and related information to subscribers as part of an effort to help wireless users avoid unexpectedly high wireless bills.

The unanimous vote by the five-member commission at its monthly meeting was expected, and came after the FCC started an inquiry into the issue in May. The investigation sought comment on a variety of issues, including the extent to which consumers can currently monitor their wireless usage and know when they reach their allotment of voice minutes, text messages or data usage.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski previewed the FCC action in a speech Wednesday at the the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington.  He outlined what the commission is calling its "Consumer Empowerment Agenda," which includes greater disclosure and transparency of wireless early termination fees for handsets, as well as the bill shock rules. The FCC meeting also came on the heels of Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ) announcement that it will pay up to $90 million to refund 15 million customers who were mistakenly charged $1.99 for mobile data services they did not use. The FCC has confirmed that it has been conducting an investigation into Verizon's inadvertent data charges.

The wireless industry has long defended its practices. The CTIA, for example, has pointed out that each of the four Tier 1 carriers, as well as many smaller carriers, allow subscribers to monitor how many minutes, how much data and how many texts they have used by typing key phrases in their phone such as #BAL, #MIN, #DATA and more. The wireless industry's trade group also has pointed out that consumers can call their carriers or check their usage via their carriers' websites.

Public interest groups said they approve of the FCC actions, but said the agency should implement strong rules that protect consumers. "This is just the beginning of a process to write overdue rules for the wireless market," Joel Kelsey, the political adviser of Free Press, said in a statement. "The FCC's proposal is a good start, but it needs to follow through by enacting rules that protect consumers from deceptive billing practices and that promote transparency and disclosure by mobile providers."

The CTIA, for its part, wants the FCC to avoid "prescriptive and costly rules that limit the creative offerings and competitive nature of the industry."  

Additionally, the FCC approved, by a 5-0 vote, to consider new rules--through a notice of proposed rulemaking--for its Universal Service Fund. The FCC has made USF reform one of the key pillars of its overarching national broadband plan. The commission voted to create a Mobility Fund to support private investment in 3G and 4G mobile services in areas where consumers currently lack mobile data access.

For more:
- see this Washington Post article
- see these two Washington Post articles

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