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Blog Posts by Joel Gurin

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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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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One-Stop-Shopping For Consumers

July 27, 2010 - 05:45 PM

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The FCC's website has always had lots of information of interest to consumers but, starting today, this information is just one click away. Today we are launching the Consumer Help Center. This site makes it easy for consumers to learn about our work and take action. Here, in one place, consumers can do read about consumer issues, get practical advice for avoiding problems, file a complaint, comment on our rulemakings, or read what our FCC experts are saying in our Consumer Blog. The site includes links to

  • Everything consumers need to know about Bill Shock and Early Termination Fees — two common issues that affect wireless customers;
  • Savvy Traveler tips — advice on making phone calls when travelling abroad;
  • Broadband Speed Test — consumers can test the speed of their broadband service;
  • Fact Sheet Library — more than 150 consumer Fact Sheets on telecom subjects;
  • Links to additional resources on a range of issues, including privacy;
  • Links to file a complaint to the FCC or comment on our rulemakings;
  • Blog posts about consumer issues — with consumer comments welcome;
  • News releases, statements, and FCC actions.

This is a work in progress and will be updated as more information is added. Please let us know what you think about the site. We're listening.

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Early Termination Fees: Share Your Story

July 26, 2010 - 01:58 PM

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For several months, the FCC has been studying early termination fees (ETFs): those fees that wireless carriers charge if you sign a long-term contract and cancel it early. Generally, in return for signing a contract with an ETF, wireless customers can get substantial discounts on their handheld devices. With the advent of smart phones, many wireless providers have increased both the discounts and the ETFs. Other contractual services, including some broadband services, now have these early termination fees as well.

You can read about our work on ETFs, including the correspondence we’ve had with wireless carriers and our survey on consumer awareness of ETFs. Now we’d like to give you a chance to join the dialogue. Please comment to this post to let us know your views or your experience with these common fees.

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Denying Bill Shock by Distorting the Facts

July 15, 2010 - 04:17 PM

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:78:height=98,width=70]]The FCC receives thousands of complaints a year about cell-phone bill shock — what happens when consumers get sudden, unexpected increases in their bills from one month to the next. In May, we released a national survey, done with two major research firms, showing that 17 percent of Americans — 30 million people — have experienced this problem. Click here for the whitepaper on the FCC survey.

Now, rather than focusing on ways to address consumers' concerns, the wireless trade association (CTIA — The Wireless Association) has been hard at work finding unfounded ways to criticize the FCC's data.   The association's latest attack on the FCC's study is based on an astounding misstatement: that as many as 70 percent of the people we interviewed were teenagers. This is simply untrue — in fact, we made it clear that we interviewed only adults.

Ironically enough, this whopper of an error stemmed from CTIA's misunderstanding of how research organizations interview cell-phone users, who are an increasingly important part of any survey sample. Click here for a more detailed rebuttal of this and other errors in CTIA's argument.

It's unfortunate that CTIA, which represents one of the country's most innovative and productive industries, has decided that ignoring or distorting the facts is a better strategy than simply addressing wireless customers' concerns. This trade association apparently believes there's nothing to worry about if 30 million Americans have gotten sudden increases on their cell-phone bills.

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Testing Broadband Speeds

by Joel Gurin, Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
June 23, 2010 - 02:32 PM

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:78:height=100,width=70]]Here at the FCC, we've been working lately on new ways to measure broadband speed and help consumers understand it. We believe that consumers deserve to know what broadband speeds they need for different applications, from email to gaming; what the advertised speeds really mean; and whether they can be sure they're getting the speeds that are advertised. To that end, the FCC is partnering with SamKnows to conduct the first scientific, hardware-based test of broadband performance in America. To help us improve broadband quality in the U.S., volunteer at TestMyISP.com to sign up for this landmark test. The video below explains how it works and how you can get involved.

Read or post comments here.
Cross-posted from Blogband.

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Consumer View: Staying Safe from Cyber Snoops

by Joel Gurin, Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
June 11, 2010 - 09:56 AM

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:78:height=100,width=71]]Recent news reports have focused attention on a growing concern: The ways in which wireless and WiFi networks can make consumers’ private data accessible.

In May, Google reported that its Street View cars – used to develop Google Maps – had mistakenly collected personal information sent over WiFi as they drove around, in addition to gathering less intrusive data about the WiFi networks themselves.

Now this week, a group of hackers reported that it had gotten the e-mail addresses of more than 100,000 Apple iPad owners by hacking the Web site of AT&T, Apple’s partner. The hackers also got the ID numbers the iPads use to communicate over the network. The Google and AT&T incidents are different kinds of intrusions, each worrisome in its own way, and each with a different remedy.

The iPad incident appears to be a classic security breach – the kind that could happen, and has happened, to many companies – and is exactly the kind of incident that has led the FCC to focus on cyber security. Our Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau is now addressing cyber security as a high priority. The FCC’s mission is to ensure that broadband networks are safe and secure, and we’re committed to working with all stakeholders to prevent problems like this in the future.

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More on Speed: Just How Satisfied Are Customers

June 2, 2010 - 01:54 PM

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Our survey report on broadband speed yesterday attracted national attention and some additional questions. We've been asked for more detail on our findings about customer satisfaction with broadband speed. As we reported, 91 percent of fixed broadband customers are "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with that service, compared to 71 percent who are satisfied with the speed of mobile broadband. A closer look gives a fuller picture.

For fixed broadband, 50 percent of customers were very satisfied with the service overall, 41 percent were somewhat satisfied, 6 percent were "not too" satisfied, and 3 percent were not satisfied at all.

For mobile broadband, we asked specifically about satisfaction with speed, a slightly different question. Here, the numbers were lower: 33 percent very satisfied, 38 percent somewhat satisfied, 8 percent not too satisfied, and 5 percent not satisfied at all. (The other 14 percent said they didn't know.)

What to make of these numbers? A few things.

First, consumers are fairly well satisfied with the speed of the broadband they get at home. Having 50 percent say they are "very satisfied" is a strong showing, although it still leaves room for improvement. Even if people are satisfied with their home broadband speed, however, they may be paying hundreds of dollars a year more than they need to. Consumers still need better information to know what speed they need for the applications they run. And given the split between "very" and "somewhat" satisfied customers, more information on broadband speed would also help consumers choose between different providers.

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Broadband Speed: When Ignorance is Costly

June 2, 2010 - 10:55 AM

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For several months, the FCC has been working to help consumers get more information about the communications services they buy. Our Notice of Inquiry last August asked how we can help consumers make more informed choices about phone, television, and broadband services. That Notice brought out a lot of good ideas from public interest groups, the communications industries, and consumers themselves.

This year, we've followed up with a number of consumer initiatives coordinated by the FCC's Consumer Task Force. We've written letters to wireless carriers about their early termination fees, taken on the problem of bill shock, and started to look at broadband speed.

Today, we're releasing the results of a national survey that shows just how large the information gap is when it comes to broadband. According to this survey, fully 80 percent of Americans with broadband at home don't know what speed they're getting. This survey was done through a major firm and drew on a national sample of three thousand consumers.

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Consumer View: Stop the Shock

May 11, 2010 - 12:45 PM

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It could happen to anyone, and it happened to me. Last year, I took on a consulting job that involved working out of town. Without realizing it, I began using my cell phone more frequently and for longer conversations. By the time I caught the problem, my monthly bill had gone from about $300 a month to well over $500, two months in a row. I worked out a compromise payment with my carrier and changed to a plan with more monthly minutes. I had learned about bill shock first-hand.

Bill shock – surprising jumps in cell-phone bills that happen without warning – is a common and serious problem. The FCC's Consumer Center receives complaints all the time from people whose bills may double or triple, going up by hundreds of dollars in a single month. Sometimes cell-phone carriers contact customers when they see an unusual calling pattern, as mine did, to their credit. Often they don't, and the bills go up.

Bill shock has been a major problem in Europe, where you can go into an international calling zone, at international rates, with as little effort as it takes Americans to drive from one state to another. The European press has reported many cases of bills reaching thousands of Euros. Now the European Union has taken action. Cell-phone carriers in Europe are now required to alert their customers when they're approaching the limit of their calling plans. This simple solution, which has just gone into effect, should be a practical way to prevent bill shock. At the least, it will ensure that every customer has fair warning.

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