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Senior Consumers Also Experience Cell Phone Bill Shock

by: Susan Fisenne

October 18, 2010

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The response from consumers to the Commission's actions on bill shock has been an encouraging sign that our initiatives are resonating with the people that need them the most.

Earlier this week, Chairman Genachowski spoke at the Center for American Progress about ways consumers can avoid cell phone bill shock. Consumers who have personally experienced bill shock were also on hand to share their stories. My conversations with consumers leading up that event gave me second-hand bill shock — I just cannot fathom getting an $18,000 cell phone bill!

Reaching out to consumers raised two points in my mind. The first was a creeping anxiety about my own family's cell plan. Did we really have the unlimited text and data plan I believed we did? Was I about to get the bill shock of my life courtesy of my texting tween at home? Thankfully, a call to my carrier was all it took to confirm my plan and clear my mind.

Secondly, I wondered how bill shock might affect America's seniors. I visited a local assisted living facility and, with the help of the Director of Resident Services, chatted with five residents. Sure enough, two of those residents had experienced bill shock. Ms. Ana's voice-only plan — typically $80 a month — jumped unexpectedly by over 50%. Unable to get help or a clear explanation from her cell provider, Ms. Ana gave up. She returned her phone to her provider's nearest retail store, terminated her contract and paid the early termination fee. She is now a very satisfied customer of AARP's Consumer Cellular plan.

Another resident — Ms. Sunny — was shocked by a 30% jump in her bill. Her provider was likewise unresponsive. She told me that dealing with her provider's customer service left her feeling "helpless." After cancelling her plan, Ms. Sunny is currently without a cell phone and is thinking about her options. I suggested that she may want to consider a phone with pre-paid minutes. I also suggested that she go down the hall and talk to Ms. Ana about her AARP cell plan.

My hour spent with Ms. Ana and Ms. Sunny did confirm my suspicion that seniors can fall victim to cell phone bill shock too. Their stories may not be as dramatic or extreme as an $18,000 cell phone bill but when living on a fixed income, even a modest increase is upsetting. These American seniors are another group of consumers who will be impacted and empowered by the FCC's ambitious Consumer Empowerment Agenda.

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