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Blog Posts by Joel Gurin

Broadband Speed: FCC Data Is Improving the Market

by Joel Gurin, Chief, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
December 5, 2011 - 11:40 AM

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:78:height=98,width=70]]As part of our Consumer Empowerment Agenda, the FCC has been taking action to ensure that consumers are getting the information they need to make informed decisions.  Our efforts to combat bill shock are one recent example, where we worked out a landmark agreement with the wireless industry to alert consumers before they are charged overage fees.  The residential broadband market is another area where consumers may be faced with decisions they don’t have adequate information to make.  Signing up for broadband—high-speed Internet—service can been a real challenge for consumers.  To be an informed shopper for any service, you have to know what will best meet your needs, and you have to know that service providers will deliver what they advertise.

When it comes to broadband, consumers are often in the dark on both counts. Many people are still puzzling out exactly how many megabits per second (Mbps) they need for web surfing, gaming, or streaming video. And, until recently, there was little information available about whether broadband providers actually delivered the speeds they promised.

The FCC has taken on this issue, beginning with the basic question: Are broadband providers delivering the speeds they promise to consumers?  For a year, we worked with an expert technical consulting group, advisers from academia and consumer organizations, and a collaborative of representatives from industry to conduct the first nationwide scientific study of home broadband service.  Almost 7,000 consumer volunteers across the country used hardware to monitor their broadband performance continuously for several months, providing close to 160 million points of data used for analysis.  This study measured the performance of 13 major broadband providers, covering 86 percent of wireline residential broadband consumers.

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Unauthorized Fees: What's Hiding in Your Phone Bill?

by Joel Gurin, Chief, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
July 12, 2011 - 11:48 AM

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If you're a savvy consumer, you know how small charges can add up over time. You may regularly scrutinize your bank statement for overdraft fees, scan your credit card bill for hidden charges, and pay careful attention to shipping and handling every time you order something online. But you may not realize that unauthorized mystery fees can also hide in your phone bill. Without realizing it, you may be a victim of "cramming," a fraudulent, illegal practice that the FCC is taking action to fight.

Cramming happens when a company puts a charge on your phone bill for a service that you never ordered and almost certainly don't need. Cramming companies don't even need to know your address to place a charge on your bill: They just need to find your phone number online or through a directory. These fake charges can be for services that sound like they're part of your phone service, like long distance service, or they can be for things as diverse as horoscopes, psychic hotlines, or diet plans. When crammers purport to provide a form of telephone service, the FCC generally has jurisdiction to take action against them; when a cramming company bills for an unrelated service, it falls under the Federal Trade Commission's jurisdiction.

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Broadband Service: Tell Us About Your “Need for Speed”

by Joel Gurin, Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
April 11, 2011 - 01:39 PM

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:78:height=100,width=71]]Imagine that you're in the market for a new car - but in a different marketplace than the one we're all familiar with. In this parallel universe, fuel efficiency is not described in miles per gallon, but in measure called "miles per blodget" that you pretend to understand, but don't. The car you're interested in is advertised as getting "super mileage" of "up to 50 miles per blodget," without any exact mileage number. And you've heard from friends and news reports that no one has actually measured whether this car, or any car on the market, gets the mileage that it claims.
That's the situation facing many consumers who are trying to choose a new broadband service. As the FCC found in a 2010 survey, 80 percent of Americans with broadband don’t know what speed they’re getting. It’s a safe bet that most of us don’t know what a given number of megabits-per-second translates into in terms of our own online experience. And ads that promise “blazing fast” speeds aren’t giving consumers precise information to help them make comparative choices.
Internet service providers have recognized this problem and have taken some good steps to help educate their customers about the services they offer. Today, the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau of the FCC issued a Public Notice that builds on their work to open a national discussion on the “need for speed.” We’re asking some basic questions: What internet speeds, and what other factors in broadband performance, are important to consumers? How do consumers’ broadband needs vary depending on the applications they want to use, from email to gaming? And how can that information best be made clear and easy to understand?

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Report from CES: Your Connected Car

January 14, 2011 - 10:08 AM

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For years, a major topic at the Consumer Electronics Show has been the increasing sophistication of in-car electronics. Six-speaker sound systems and GPS mapping were only the beginning. New cars today are often available with options that provide news, entertainment, communication, route planning, and safety – all enabled by wireless broadband. Many auto manufacturers are pushing the envelope of car connectivity. For instance, General Motors has the prototype EN-V – a tiny concept car that can use broadband to navigate itself and that comes when you call it from your smartphone.

At a standing-room-only session at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, attendees heard from a roster of companies that are now providing apps for cars. OnStar, a pioneer in the field, is growing its paid-subscription service to provide vehicle security and safety. Pandora, which millions of people already use for a personalized radio experience, is seeking to become as easy to use in your car as it is on your laptop or smartphone. Other companies are specializing in speech recognition, in-car systems integration, and other approaches to make a range of automotive conveniences seamless and safe.

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Report from CES: How Will You Watch TV?

January 11, 2011 - 03:06 PM

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I'm back from the Consumer Electronics Show, the once-a-year showcase for the latest, most innovative consumer technology. With over 130,000 attendees, a show floor the size of six New York City blocks, and IMAX-sized arrays of flat-screen TVs everywhere, the CES can be hard to get your head around. But each year some strong themes emerge.

This year, a major development is what you could call the Emerging Entertainment Ecosystem. We're moving rapidly into a world where movies, live TV, music, and more will be available on all devices, anywhere and at any time.

The idea of "TV everywhere" has been around for a while. For instance, Slingbox began six years ago by marketing devices that send your TV signal to your smartphone or laptop, wherever you are. At the Slingbox booth, a rep told me how he'd recently used their product to watch his local TV station via Wi Fi on a plane over the Middle East. What's different now is that major manufacturers, software companies, and carriers are partnering to develop fully integrated systems to provide entertainment across devices.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which puts on CES, chose several keynoters to talk about their visions for integrated entertainment. Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg described how his company is developing strategies, infrastructure, and devices that will allow you to view TV or movies in HD with higher download and streaming speeds on your smartphone or tablet. The new XOOM tablet, designed in a partnership between Motorola, Google, and Verizon, is made for this use, and was a popular stop on the CES show floor. The XOOM, expected out early this year on Verizon's 3G network, will use a new version of Google's Android platform, called Honeycomb, that's developed specifically for tablet use and will be upgradeable to Verizon's new high-speed LTE network by mid-year.

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Consumers: Technology is Personal

by Joel Gurin, Chief, Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
January 1, 2011 - 11:13 AM

Internet Service: Would You Switch - and Why?

December 6, 2010 - 01:13 PM

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If you're like many Americans, you may be wondering whether you should keep the Internet service you have in your home. If you have more than one broadband provider in your area, you may be getting a barrage of advertising encouraging you to switch from your current provider to another one. Should you switch – and if so, why?

At the FCC, we've done a representative national survey to find out how satisfied consumers are with their Internet service and what goes into the decision to switch or stick with an ISP. We're releasing the results of that survey today. It shows that Americans are largely pleased with their Internet service, but have some cause for dissatisfaction – and face obstacles that make it hard for them to switch ISPs.

Our survey found that 38 percent of Internet users have changed service providers in the last three years, more than half of them for a reason other than changing residences. The majority of Internet users seem to be satisfied with their service; most people who haven't switched say they haven't even considered it seriously. Still, 38 percent is a significant number, and one that deserves further exploration.

What makes people want to change providers? Two things: Price and performance. Nearly a quarter of home Internet users are dissatisfied with the price they pay for service, and 47 percent of those who switched ISPs said price was a major reason. Even more – 49 percent – said that a major reason they switched was to get a faster or higher performance Internet connection.

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Pam Gregory and Jamal Mazrui to Lead Accessibility and Innovation Initiative

October 15, 2010 - 10:05 AM

By Joel Gurin and Karen Peltz Strauss

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:78:height=98,width=70]]We are very pleased to announce that Pam Gregory will be the Director, and Jamal Mazrui will be the Deputy Director, of the Commission’s new Accessibility and Innovation Initiative. Chairman Genachowski launched the initiative at a joint White House/ FCC/Department of Commerce event in July, consistent with a recommendation in the National Broadband Plan.

The mission of the Accessibility and Innovation Initiative is to promote collaborative problem-solving among stakeholders to ensure that people with disabilities reap the full benefits of communications technology. We will use many tools to achieve this objective, including the Chairman’s Award, Accessibility and Innovation challenges, workshops, field events, facilitated dialogues, and online tools such as a problem solving commons and a clearinghouse.

We have or will be launching soon accessibility challenges to developers, industry, and students related to accessible wireless apps, cloud computing and cognitive disabilities, web 2.0 accessibility, and geo-location accessibility, as Chairman Genachowski mentioned in his July 19, 2010 speech. In the near future, we will be providing more details on the Chairman’s Award for Advancements in Accessibility as well as other upcoming events.

We are thrilled that Pam has agreed to lead the Accessibility and Innovation Initiative. Pam has been working on disability issues at the FCC since 1996 and was the first chief of the Disability Rights Office. You can contact Pam at Pam.Gregory@fcc.gov.

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Bill Shock: Starting to Set the Rules

October 14, 2010 - 05:10 PM

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At today's FCC open meeting, the Chairman and the four other commissioners unanimously voted to propose rules to prevent Bill Shock. These proposed rules would require mobile carriers to send their customers a voice or text message when they are approaching their limit for a text, voice, or data plan, and when they are starting to incur roaming fees. The Commission notes that there are already similar rules in the European Union, where these alerts appear to be helping consumers without putting an undue burden on wireless companies. You can read the proposed rules and the commissioners' and Chairman's statements here.

We in the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, which prepared these proposed rules, are happy to have the full support of the Commission as we go forward. What happens next is a period of comment to allow all interested parties – including the industry, consumer groups, and the public at large – to weigh in on our proposals. That's where you come in. You can go to our Consumer Help Center, at fcc.gov/consumers, and use the "File a Comment With the FCC" button to make your views known. If Bill Shock has happened to you, you can "File a Consumer Complaint" from the same website. You can also share your stories with us posting a comment to this blog, or sending me an e-mail at joel.gurin@fcc.gov.

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Fighting Bill Shock: We Hear You Now

October 13, 2010 - 06:01 PM

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As you can read in his blog post here, our Chairman, Julius Genachowski, outlined an ambitious Consumer Empowerment Agenda in his speech earlier today. The goal of that agenda is to ensure that consumers have better, more complete, and more helpful information on all the communications services we use every day. We're taking the concept of truth in billing and expanding it to truth at every stage – ensuring that you have accurate information when you're choosing a service provider, choosing a plan, or deciding whether to switch providers, as well as when you're reading your bill.

Today, we've also released a white paper that analyzes the complaints we've gotten on wireless bill shock over the past few months. The data are, well, shocking. Out of a total of 764 complaints from January through June, we found that two-thirds involved amounts of a hundred dollars or more; 150 complaints involved a thousand dollars or more; and eight complaints involved 10 thousand dollars or more.

Three consumers at today's event told stories about their own experiences that show the human side of the bill-shock numbers. One was a woman who was visiting her sister in Haiti when the earthquake hit, and unexpectedly had to use her phone for voice and text back to the U.S. Her carrier told her that they would waive fees for people dealing with this emergency – but it turned out that they only waived fees for voice. She returned home to find a 35 thousand dollar phone bill. The carrier has now waived most of that charge, but is still billing her for over five thousand dollars for using her phone during this emergency situation.

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