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Pam Gregory and Jamal Mazrui to Lead Accessibility and Innovation Initiative

October 15, 2010

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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October's Open Commission Meeting: Empowering Consumers

October 14, 2010

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:88:height=93,width=70]]New technology is an exciting thing, and what's happening in the mobile space is simply incredible. With any new technology, consumers need to be empowered to address concerns quickly and with simple solutions.

During the October Open Commission Meeting we took bold moves on our consumer empowerment agenda. Following the meeting I recorded a video that outlines how the FCC is taking on important consumer issues — like bill shock — to empower and educate Americans.

Watch the video to learn more, then leave your comments below.

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Bill Shock: Starting to Set the Rules

October 14, 2010

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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

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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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The FCC's Consumer Empowerment Agenda

October 13, 2010

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On the way in this morning, I got an email from a friend that rings familiar to way too many Americans.

My friend said that he incurred $2,000 in extra data charges while on a trip overseas, despite buying an "international plan." He added that this was "more than 15 times" what he had expected to pay.

He was a victim of what we at the FCC call "bill shock," and, according to our research, there are 30 million Americans just like him.

Bill shock occurs when consumers see their bills jump unexpectedly by tens, hundreds, or thousands of dollars from one month to the next. Common cases are when a subscriber is charged for unknowingly exceeding his or her allotments for voice, text or data, or gets hit with roaming charges that are unexpected.

A few hours ago, I delivered a speech highlighting what the FCC is doing to put an end to bill shock, as well as other fees and billing practices that are giving consumers headaches.

I'm proud that the FCC is pursuing an aggressive Consumer Empowerment Agenda. In a nutshell, our strategy is to educate, empower, and enforce.

We are working to harness technology and promote transparency to empower consumers with the information they need to make smart decisions and to make the market work. And when there is bad conduct in the market, the FCC has acted, and we will continue to act. Consumers must know that the FCC's got their back.

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How shopping can eliminate information asymmetries

October 13, 2010

(Part of the ongoing WISENET Series)

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:137:height=99,width=70]]The last time I shopped for a laptop, I conducted an extensive online search.  I read articles from computer shopping magazines.  I looked at user reviews.  Then, I started comparing prices online.  I visited the manufacturer’s website.  With regret, I learned that in Hong Kong they were selling the same laptop with a fancy Vivienne Tam design which was unavailable in the US!  Finally, I found a big chain store with the best price.  I clicked through to order.  Then, a note popped up that the laptop (blue!) was in stock at the bricks and mortar store two blocks from where I live.  I reserved it online and walked down the street to pick it up.  Before online shopping, it was hard to know whether the prices in the neighborhood shops were better or worse than elsewhere.  Finding the answer cost time, energy, and money.  But, now the consumer has better access to information, there is a better balance between what the customer and the salesperson knows – the information asymmetry is mostly eliminated.  How have ICT’s eliminated information asymmetries in your experience? … In the next post of this series, collective action and the impact of ICT on society... .

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FCC /Developer update: Building off community input

by Michael Byrne, GIS Program Manager
October 13, 2010

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:158:height=100,width=70]]Based on your comments and suggestions, we've just released updates to our FCC.gov/developer API's. In particular we have made two enhancements: one to help navigate the complexities of census geography, and one that's purely stylistic.

Census geography changes, while small or obscure, can be significant. A tiny change in a census boundary can mean that a rate based calculation includes a completely different denominator for population or demographic value. These changes, if not watched for carefully can be significant to the results of querying large federal databases.

To assist the community of developers building off FCC tools, we'll try and point out these small but significant changes when we see them.

The biggest change between 2000 census boundaries and 2009 census boundaries was the addition of a sub identifier to the smallest unit of boundary, the block. This addition allows for finer resolution to the map base. However, because of other changes like population growth, demographic switches, and land use changes, the external boundaries of the block boundaries have also changed.

In order to keep up with these issues, we are supplementing our FCC Census Block API with the ability to query for the current year as well as previous years. From now on, the current (e.g. 2009) year search will be the normal REST query on the documentation page like this;

http://data.fcc.gov/api//block/find?latitude=37.21&longitude=-120.4356

To gain access to a previous year, all you need to do is insert the year in the url like this;

http://data.fcc.gov/api//block/2000/find?latitude=37.21&longitude=-120.4356

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ICT's better our lives

by Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Chief, Strategic Planning & Membership Dept., ITU
October 12, 2010

(Part of the ongoing WISENET Series)

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:242:height=100,width=70]]To bridge the digital divide, content and connectivity must go hand in hand.  We must ensure that the developing countries get the access, and applications they need to better their lives.  The access and applications must be affordable.   Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) bring great benefits but must be used responsibly.  ICT companies, Policy makers, educators, and parents all have a role to play to ensure that our children are protected and understand potentially harmful situations or materials on the Internet.   ICTs are transformational and have the power to better our lives. Improved health care delivery, and provision of education are two good examples.

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Banking on your phone

by Linda Pintro, Senior Legal Advisor, International Bureau
October 12, 2010

(Part of the ongoing WISENET Series)

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:243:height=61,width=70]]It should come as no surprise that “mobile money” has taken off in the developing world because the need for it there is massive, and the opportunity it presents for network operators and banks is also huge.  The term “mobile money” includes all monetary transactions done through a mobile phone.  When I talk about mobile money in the developing countries, I am not talking about the advanced services in which you can wave your telephone at the vending machine for contactless payment of your candy bar.  For the most part I’m talking basic services like getting loans and paying bills.  This basic mobile banking is forecast to generate $5 billion in fees by 2012.  In Africa, for example, approximately 80% of the people have no or very little access to banking services, but they are not alone in being “unbanked” or “under-banked.” There are a number of reasons why people are unbanked.  They may not have one or more basic things that a bank may require to open a bank account:  an ID card, permanent address, a job.  In some cases, they may have all that is required but simply not live near a bank branch.  Because most financial transactions in the developing world take place at the corner “mom and pop stores,” mobile money services allow these small shops to act like branches.  Although they may not offer you a free toaster for signing up for banking services, these convenience stores are getting the job done.  Let me tell you how in my next few blog posts.

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Lifeline and Link-Up Programs: Stay Connected!

October 12, 2010

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No one should be without access to vital emergency services and community resources because they can't afford it.

Using the telephone has become such a routine part of our lives that many of us take for granted that we can pick up a phone and be in contact with family, schools, friends, employers, doctors, emergency services – that we have the ability to stay connected with the rest of the world. But it is critical that we not leave behind those who are struggling to get basic telephone service and need help to get and stay connected. Some vulnerable consumers can't even dial 911 in an emergency.

No one should be without access to vital emergency services and community resources because they can't afford it.

The Lifeline and Link-Up programs of the Universal Service Fund ensure that all Americans can get basic telephone service by providing limited discounts to consumers who might not otherwise be able to afford service. Lifeline involves discounts on the monthly charges, and Link-Up involves a discount on the cost of initiating telephone service. The discounts are available for the primary residential telephone, even if it's a wireless phone. Many eligible consumers including senior citizens, people with disabilities, veterans and their families, non-English speaking and those living in rural areas and Tribal lands are facing hard economic times, long and short-term. There are eligible consumers for the Lifeline and Link-Up programs in every state. But only one-third of eligible Americans participate. To find out how the Lifeline and Link-Up programs work in your state go to LifelineSupport.org.

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