To fight mobile-phone 'bill shock,' FCC may require alerts

The FCC says it may have identified at least a partial answer to the longstanding problem of cell-phone customers' getting burned by unexpectedly large bills: requiring carriers to send text messages when subscribers' bills are - predictably - about to explode.

"The concept is transparency and simplicity," Joel Gurin, chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, said at a news conference this morning. Gurin, a former Consumers Union official who since January has headed the FCC's new Consumer Task Force, says the agency is starting out gingerly by asking for comments before it proposes a rule.

"In the European Union, carriers are required by law to send text messages to consumers when they are running up roaming charges or getting close to a set limit for data roaming," Gurin says. "We’re issuing a Public Notice to see if there’s any reason that American carriers can’t use similar automatic alerts to inform consumers when they are at risk of running up a high bill.”

The public notice says of the European rules, which were adopted in June 2009:

Under the new EU regulations, when a wireless consumer places a voice call or text message in an EU market other than the consumer’s home market, the consumer’s home market provider must send to the consumer, free of charge, a text message detailing roaming prices for sending and receiving voice calls and text messages.  The consumer may elect not to receive this automatic notification service, but the service must be provided again, free of charge, upon request by the consumer.

"Data roaming" - which sometimes costs users thousands of dollars in unexpected charges - is also addressed:

The new EU regulations also require that wireless providers notify a consumer using a data roaming service when the consumer has reached 80 percent of an agreed upon limit (either a default limit or a customer-designated limit).   When a consumer exceeds the established monetary or volume roaming limit, the provider must send another notification explaining the applicable costs and procedures if the consumer wishes to continue using the roaming data service.  At that point, the provider must cease providing the service pending further instruction from the consumer

If you want to submit a brief comment to the FCC about this idea, or other approaches to limiting "bill shock," click here and enter "09-158" as the "Proceeding Number."

I've been writing about wireless bill shock for a decade or more.  Consumers have screamed loudly enough that the market has offered some answers - one of the major carriers, Sprint, ran an entire ad campaign decrying (other carriers') "ugly overages,"  and I switched my own service to AT&T Wireless, then Cingular, in large part because of that carrier's response strategy: "rollover minutes." But the market hasn't eliminated the problem, which Gurin says still generates hundreds of complaints to the commission even if subscribers can't dispute that they are contractually obligated to pay.

To me, this sounds like a simple, sensible response.  If you have other ideas, I'd like to hear them - as would the FCC.

Next up on the consumer task force's agenda: broadband speeds ("'blazing fast' is not a quantitative assessment," Gurin says), and wireless carriers' early-termination fees.

For some FCC tips on avoiding cell-phone bill shocks, click here.