Thursday, February 11, 2016

POSTED: Thursday, September 3, 2015, 4:56 PM
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Inquirer published my final consumer column on Sunday (you can read it here). Now it’s time to take leave from this blog, which I hope another writer will take over. Before I go, a few parting thoughts.

As I wrote Sunday, one thread seems to connect many of the problems I’ve focused on during nearly two decades covering consumer topics. It boils down to this: Markets offer the best possible consumer protection – but only when they work, which means there’s enough competition and transparency to keep companies on their toes. Consumers are always better off if they understand the product or service offered and the price, and if they can threaten to walk away to a competitor. A key corollary: Markets work best when they’re governed by well-designed rules.

Unfortunately, devils always lurk in the details. The Federal Communications Commission recently moved in the right direction by reclassifying broadband Internet service as “telecommunications” rather than as a lightly regulated “information service.” But that came after a decade of moving the other way – a decade in which regulators placed too much faith in markets and some cable and phone companies took advantage of their position by interfering with or challenging widely accepted principles of an “open Internet” and “net neutrality.”

POSTED: Thursday, August 6, 2015, 7:08 PM

Remember that old joke told about George W. Bush and other scions of the rich and famous who later find success on their own - that "he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple"?  That's what came to mind as I read of today's decision favoring Verizon and AT&T by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC serves as both an umpire and a manager in the telecommunications game, and it should know a Gentleman's Triple when it sees one.  

As I wrote in an Inquirer column last month, the FCC essentially gave away high-value radio spectrum three decades ago to two licensees in each major market as the United States sought to seed a new cellular phone industry. One went to the incumbent Baby Bell, such as Verizon. Another was offered via a lottery, and most of the winners were rolled up into McCaw Cellular, which later become AT&T. It's no disrespect to Craig McCaw, himself the son of a less successful broadcasting and cable entrepreneur, to say that the wireless business he sold for $12.6 billion in 1993 to AT&T got a huge head start in its industry - just like the Baby Bell systems that were eventually rolled up into Verizon. 

Today, the FCC set final rules for next year's "wireless incentive auction," a complicated procedure that should help to further competition among wireless carriiers. But in its effort to balance competing interests, it missed an opportunity: It rejected pleas from consumer advocates and smaller carriers such as T-Mobile, which urged a tweak to auction rules aimed at creating a more level playing field among the four national carriers that have survived - sometimes just barely - as the market has evolved.

POSTED: Tuesday, July 28, 2015, 12:41 PM
Respondents thought the Sentry did an excellent job of thwarting unwanted calls; receiving wanted calls was more problematic. (Photo c/o Amazon.com)

Inquirer and Philly.com readers continue to ask how to block the incessant robocalls that plague home phones and even many wireless lines - the latter despite clear laws blocking automated calls to mobile phones whether or not they're on the Do Not Call list.  Nomorobo, a technology that won a challenge grant from the Federal Trade Commission, has largely solved the problem for many of us - it's worked wonders on my Comcast home phone (you can get it here for free).  But Nomorobo so far only works with VoIP (Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol) phones such as Xfinity's and Verizon FiOS's, so it's useless for many consumers.

Consumer Reports to the rescue.  The nonprofit publication, which helped bring national attention to the robocall problem, has been testing several devices that work on copper-line phones as well as VoIP, and today it gave at least one a clear thumbs-up. The drawback to all these devices: Relief will cost you, unless and until phone companies start providing robocall-blocking as part of your ordinary service - as email providers do with spam filtering. (UPDATE: See below for Verizon's response.)

CR's clear winner - aside from the free Nomorobo - was the Digitone Call Blocker Plus, which costs $110 at Amazon.com and uses a combination of blacklisting and whitelisting to block unwanted robocalls while letting legitimate ones through.

POSTED: Wednesday, July 22, 2015, 2:19 PM

Forty-five states' attorneys general, including Pennsylvania's Kathleen Kane, are pushing for five major phone companies to follow through swiftly in enabling customers to block robocalls, now that the Federal Communications Commission has cleared the way by ruling that offering blocking technology to customers won't violate open-access principles, such as net neutrality, that govern the phone carriers.

Consumers Union, whose national End Robocalls campaign helped push the FCC to act, said:

Attorneys General from 45 states around the country called on the major phone companies today to provide their customers with effective tools to help stop the flood of unwanted robocalls.  The effort comes just weeks after the Federal Communications Commission made clear that phone companies can and should offer such tools and as nearly 330,000 Americans have joined Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign calling on them to do so. 

POSTED: Tuesday, July 21, 2015, 2:24 PM

Seems like credit-card companies are a bit like proverbial old dogs. They can't learn new tricks, so they just keep trying old ones.

What else to conclude from today's enforcement by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - arriving on the agency's fourth anniversary? The CFPB ordered Citibank and subsidiaries to pay back about $700 million in ill-gotten gains from the deceptive marketing, billing, and administration of credit-card add-on services, plus about $35 million in penalties. In addition to profiting from misleading services such as "debt protection" and "credit monitoring," a Ctibank subsidiary also "deceptively charged expedited payment fees to nearly 1.8 million consumer accounts during collection calls," the agency says. All told, about 8.8 million consumers' accounts were affected.

You can see the CFPB's announcement here, including information on the refunds (and warnings about refund-related scams, since bad guys' imaginations apparently know no bounds).  This is the 10th credit-card settlement the agency has reached, and the second-largest in restitution - just short of the $727 million in refunds it obtained for Bank of America credit-card customers.

POSTED: Thursday, July 16, 2015, 2:07 PM
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

So far as I know, Philly's First Corporate Citizen, also known as Comcast, has never offered a senior-citizen discount here in Philadelphia (a.k.a. Kabletown), let alone a broad-based 10 percent discount on cable costs to all the city's elderly, poor and disabled. But that hasn't stopped some of the city's outspoken residents (including yours truly) from calling for such a price break during the city's franchise-renewal negotations with Comcast.

Well, here's a warning from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, a.k.a Minnesota - the state where the the answer to the question of "Who goes first at a four-way stop" is "No one":  Watch out for the follow-through.  The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that the city won renewal of such a discount in its own recent franchise negotations, but that a lot of customers seemed unaware it had ever been available.  Even worse is what happened when customers called to finally request it. Says the Pioneer Press' TwinCities.com website:

Any number of the city’s elderly residents say they’ve been calling Comcast for the discount since a Pioneer Press report mentioned it on Sunday, and customer service reps have told them it doesn’t exist; it’s only valid in Puerto Rico; they don’t qualify for it because they’re on a special promotion; they don’t qualify for it because they receive “bundled” cable, phone, home security and Internet services; they’re elderly and don’t know what they’re talking about…

POSTED: Thursday, July 9, 2015, 10:25 AM
John Legere, CEO and President of T-Mobile USA. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

T-Mobile has been roiling the U.S. wireless market for more than two years with a series of what CEO John Legere calls its "Un-carrier moves."  Today's announcement will be big and welcome news for consumers and businesspeople who travel to Canada or Mexico or make calls there to friends, family or businesses: As of July 15, Legere announced today, "we're just making Canada and Mexico part of your home territory."

Moments after T-Mobile put out the news, Legere promoted it during a conference call  that started with his trademark snark about "dumb and dumber," a.k.a. Verizon and AT&T, and "our new friend on the schoolbus," otherwise known as Sprint - which Legere said T-Mobile may finally surpass in total customers when both carriers report new counts later this month.  But this North American union is no joke, even if Legere also offered a snarky apology to Donald Trump: It offers a serious price cut to American travelers, and it doesn't seem to be diluted with fine print.

Calls and texts? Just like home, including calls to land-lines, T-Mobile says. Data? The same - you'll get LTE data under the same terms as your U.S. terms. And the home-territory concept also applies to calls within either country, Legere says.

POSTED: Thursday, June 25, 2015, 3:13 PM
T-Mobile CEO John Legere announces the company's new "JUMP" plan.

When T-Mobile launched its "Uncarrier" campaign more than two years ago, CEO John Legere's main target was "pain points" in the wireless industry - which was known for them. Large carriers like Verizon and AT&T set the pattern, with contract terms that heedlessly caused pain to customers via overage charges, international roaming fees, early-termination fees, and data-roaming charges. Some were so outrageous - hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars in extra charges on a monthly statement - that they prompted an FCC campaign focused on "wireless bill shock."

T-Mobile and the famously profane Legere made those tricks and traps vanish for the Uncarrier's subscribers, and sometimes pushed the competition. But its series of "Uncarrier" announcements (such as here and here) was a tough act to follow, which is probably why today's announcement - a new "Jump on Demand" feature that lowers the cost of continually wanting the latest and greatest smartphone - seems to pale by comparison.

"What we’re doing is giving people more freedom and flexibility than they’ve ever had," area vice president Terry Hayes told me. The average American upgrades a cellphone every 20 months, and customers subscribed to T-Mobile's previous Jump plan swapped phones every 14 months, Hayes says. With Jump on Demand, cellphone ownership turns into something more like "an amped-up lease," he says. Sign up, and you can repeatedly replace your phone - up to three swaps a year - at no added cost.

About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
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