Senator, FCC look to end mobile phone 'bill shock'

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will look at ways to prevent so-called bill shock for mobile phone customers at its next meeting, even though a mobile trade association says customers are already well informed about their calling plans.

The FCC is scheduled to debate whether to launch a rulemaking proceeding requiring mobile carriers to provide alerts to customers when they’re about to go over their monthly minutes or incur other unexpected charges. Details of the proposed rulemaking aren’t yet available, an FCC spokeswoman said Friday.

The FCC began seeking public comment about bill shock in May, and the agency released a survey later in the month that found 17 percent of respondents had experienced sudden billing increases, even though they hadn’t changed their calling or texting plans.

CTIA, a trade group representing mobile carriers, has questioned the FCC survey and has suggested there’s no need for new regulations. Carriers already provide tools to warn customers about their bills, including text messages and websites, the trade group said in a Sept. 29 document describing discussions it had with FCC officials.

A tiny percentage of mobile phone customers have complained to the FCC about unexpected charges, CTIA officials have said.

“Wireless carriers and app developers are constantly providing additional methods for alerting customers regarding their usage to avoid unexpected charges,” CTIA said in its September filing. “The FCC should not prescribe — and ultimately limit—carriers’ ability to provide effective consumer account management tools.”

However, one U.S. senator and some consumer groups are pushing for new mobile billing regulations. Just this week, Verizon Communications announced it would refund up to $90 million to about 15 million customers who were mistakenly charged for data fees.

Even before the Verizon announcement, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, introduced the Cell Phone Bill Shock Act, which would require mobile carriers to notify customers by e-mail or text message when they have used 80 percent of their monthly minutes.

Udall’s bill, introduced Sept. 30, would also require mobile carriers to obtain customer consent before charging for services not covered by their regular monthly plan.

“The texting and Internet capabilities that make today’s cell phones more useful than ever should be applied to help customers avoid bill shock,” Udall said when introducing the bill. “Sending an automatic text or e-mail notification to a person’s phone is a simple, cost-effective solution that should not place a burden on cell phone companies and will go a long way toward reducing the pain of bill shock by customers.”

In recent months, several mobile phone customers have gotten multi-thousand-dollar billings for overseas roaming or Web-surfing on their smartphones, Udall said.

This week, Udall urged the FCC to take “strong action” to protect mobile customers. The European Union already has regulations requiring mobile carriers to notify customers when their monthly usage reaches 80 percent of the limit.

“In many cases, a simple alert message would help consumers avoid bill shock and overcharges,” Udall said in a statement.

Consumers Union, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, and Public Knowledge have endorsed Udall’s legislation. The bill would “go a long way toward protecting consumers by shielding them from excessive overage charges and service fees,” wrote Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge’s president, in a Thursday letter to Udall.

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