FCC touts success in battle over wireless 'bill shock'

It probably hasn't stopped "bill shock." But the Federal Communications Commission said today that the nation's major wireless carriers have all complied with a 2011 promise to start warning customers before and as they hit monthly limits for voice, texts, or data, or are subject to costly international-roaming charges.

The FCC says the protections now apply to 97 percent of wireless customers, per an agreement reached with CTIA, the wireless industry's main trade association. One reason not everybody is covered is that the deal applies "to currently-offered and future domestic voice, data and messaging plans as of October 17, 2011."

For those who qualify, one key provision is that you don't need to sign up - you get the alerts automatically. Back in 2010, the FCC said that one in six wireless customers had reported "a sudden and unexpected increase in monthly bills." The worst cases were those involving international roaming, such as this $20,000 in charges to a customer visiting Poland, or this $17,500 charge for roaming data - a movie download - while visiting the Dominican Republic. Data roaming in Canada led one T-Mobile customer to actually receive a $200,000 bill.

The voluntary agreement, proposed as an alternative to formal regulation and patterned after rules imposed by European authorities, came several months after Verizon Wireless agreed to refund $52.8 million to customers dinged for unwanted data fees and other mystery charges, and to pay $25 million to the government to drop further investigation. 

Amid today's outrageous reports that banks' compensation checks to some wronged mortgage borrowers have been bouncing, the FCC's news is a welcome counterpoint - a reminder that, at least sometimes, regulators actually succeed in protecting consumers when the marketplace fails them.