FCC Finally Tackles "Bill Shock"

The FCC is taking a stand against absurd phone bills. The regulatory agency is requesting public comment on a new initiative that will force wireless carriers to notify consumers about high charges, like unanticipated roaming or data fees.

”We are hearing from consumers about unpleasant surprises on their bills,” Joel Gurin, FCC Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau said in a press release today. “This is an avoidable problem. Avoiding bill shock is good for consumers and ultimately good business for wireless carriers as well.”

The FCC is taking a hard look at the European Union model, which requires carriers to send text messages to users when they are running up roaming or data fees. Through its Public Notice, the FCC is seeking feedback on whether US carriers could implement a similar system.

According to the agency, “bill shock” is a major consumer problem. The agency says it has fielded hundreds of complaints from around the country, involving all the major carriers. In its press release, the FCC cited a few sympathy-inducing examples:

“My [cell phone] bill suddenly tripled in one month. . . When I got to looking it over, I noticed that they had charged me for my mobile to mobile minutes. They had advertised free mobile to mobile.”

“I received a bill this month with over $500 in overage charges which led me to check my statement. I found that on my wife’s and my phones over the past three months we have had 246 calls totaling 304 minutes from [two unknown numbers].”

“I recently updated my wireless plan in Sept 09. Since I upgraded my plan, my bills have been outrageous. I was informed . . . that my rollover minutes were taken away when I changed my plan. . . . I was never informed this would affect my rollover minutes and have thus racked up hundreds of dollars in overages at $.45 a minute.”

The FCC is a few, or rather several, years late to this party. “Bill shock,” as any mobile user will attest, is not a revelation of 2010, it’s been a persistent problem since the birth of the cellular phone plan. Personally, I can count on at least one hand the number of times I was surprised by extraneous charges, from egregious roaming fees to hidden costs. While the consumer should take a high degree of responsibility, increased transparency in this industry is long over due.