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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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The FCC's Consumer Empowerment Agenda

October 13, 2010 - 04:29 PM

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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 - 03:58 PM

(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 - 03:07 PM

[[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 - 11:45 AM

(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 - 11:35 AM

(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 - 11:15 AM

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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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Broadband can improve the lives of women everywhere

October 8, 2010 - 04:54 PM

(Part of the ongoing WISENET Series)

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:36:height=81,width=70]]As the push towards ubiquitous broadband continues in the United States, we must not forget about the digital divide that women in low- and middle-income countries still battle. According to a 2010 study by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), we account for 25 percent or less of Internet users in Africa and Asia. This disparity is even more striking in the Middle East, where only 6 percent of Internet users are women. As a result, women in these countries are generally less literate than the men and are more likely to hold employment with little, if any, job security, wages, or benefits.

Technological innovation provides women with an opportunity to combat these results. Specifically, increased access to broadband technologies in these countries will increase women’s economic independence and efficiency. For example, the Negros Women of Tomorrow Foundation’s (NWTF) Village Phone Program, launched in 2007, has created over 300 phone-operation businesses in low-income countries. Initiatives such as this play a critical role in closing the digital gender divide. In addition to increasing broadband accessibility, it is important to focus on the creation of training programs to ensure that women are effectively utilizing newly introduced technologies.

The study conducted by ICRW can be found at their website.  

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Veena Rawat: Empowering Women

by Veena Rawat, President, Communications Research Centre
October 8, 2010 - 11:59 AM

(Part of the ongoing WISENET Series)

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:245:height=100,width=71]]Previously we posted a blog noting that Dr. Rawat was the only woman running for a senior post in the ITU. We also began an introduction of Dr. Rawat, and in this blog we continue.

Throughout Dr. Veena Rawat’s career and in her personal life, she has enthusiastically supported women. In 2004 the Canadian Women in Communications organization presented her with the Canadian Woman of the Year in Communications Award. A spokeswoman stated “[Dr. Rawat] has been a tireless role model and supporter of advancement of women and under her leadership, the participation of women in engineering roles at Industry Canada has blossomed.” From 2003 to 2006, Dr. Rawat was a representative for Women in Science & Technology. Since 2007, she has been a member of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, Women in Technology group. In 2005 Dr. Rawat was included in Canada’s Most Powerful Women, Top 100 by Canada’s Executive Women’s Network, and was awarded Canadian Woman of the Year in Communications by the Canadian Women in Communications in 2004. Dr. Rawat has been a volunteer mentor with The Women’s Executive Network since 2007 and a member of the Heart Truth Leadership Council starting in 2008. The council is part of the Heart Truth campaign to raise awareness of women’s heart disease. During the 1990s, she worked with groups concerned with violence against women, and volunteered with sports teams for high school girls.

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FCC Launches New Consumer Webpages Dedicated to Online Safety and Security to Help Kickoff National Cybersecurity Awareness Month

October 8, 2010 - 11:34 AM

As you may know, October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and the FCC and other government agencies are providing educational materials and outreach on how consumers and small businesses can protect themselves while online. Online security and privacy are very important issues, and there are growing concerns as we access the Internet to do more and more things, like online banking, purchasing items from our favorite online retail stores and interacting with each other on popular websites.

As the FCC's National Broadband Plan recognized, protecting online privacy and security are also important for promoting our nation's adoption of cutting edge broadband services. In kicking off our Cybersecurity Awareness Month activities, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted that, "When people fear that new technologies put their privacy at risk, they are less likely to use those technologies. To fulfill the promise of broadband for our children, parents need to feel confident that their children are safe online and that their personal information is protected."

As part of our education and outreach on these issues, the FCC has created a new online privacy and security webpage, which can be accessed at www.fcc.gov/consumers. This webpage provides useful information for consumers and small businesses regarding online safety and cybersecurity. Throughout the month, we will be rolling out tip sheets, checklists, videos, screencasts, and blog postings — such as this one — addressing several topics, including:

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