COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL
Wireless Carrier Usage Alerts to Prevent Bill Shock
(October 17, 2012)
There are now more wireless connections for phones and tablets in the United States than
there are people—and we rely on these devices like never before. They help us stay connected to
our families and friends, our jobs, and our communities. They are an essential part of our daily
As we eagerly adopt new wireless devices and consume a growing number of wireless
services, it is more important than ever that we understand what we are spending our money on.
And let’s be honest, wireless plans have gotten complicated. Carriers offer a wide array of
options including limited or unlimited voice, data, and texting. They offer plans that can be
shared across multiple devices and plans with additional roaming fees. It is no wonder that one
in six Americans have experienced bill shock.
Let me highlight one story. Celina Aarons typically paid about $175 per month for her
wireless family plan that she shared with her two brothers, both of whom are deaf. One month,
at home in Florida she received a $200,000 bill from her wireless carrier because her brother had
spent two weeks in Canada where he had sent text messages and downloaded videos. Due to
steep international roaming fees, Celina was left to negotiate the payment of an astronomical bill
without any warning.
Celina’s story is especially egregious, but her problem is not uncommon. The
Commission has received too many complaints telling similar stories: consumers stuck paying
thousands of dollars in overage fees when they unknowingly surpassed their data usage limits;
parents paying hundreds of dollars when a teenage child on a family plan exceeds their limit on
texting; and consumers surprised with very high bills for wireless usage abroad when they return
These stories teach us that it is frighteningly easy to misunderstand your plan, surpass
plan limits, and wind up paying the price. How many people in this room know how many bits
of data they have used so far this month? How many minutes of voice or how many text
messages? The truth is keeping track is difficult.
Here’s what I think: Nobody should need to hire a lawyer to understand their wireless
contract and nobody should need to hire an accountant to explain their wireless bill.
That is why the bill shock initiative we are discussing today is so important. Kudos to the
Chairman, Consumers Union, and CTIA for their hard work to address this problem.
Under the agreement we celebrate here, CTIA members have committed to provide alerts
to their wireless customers both before and after subscribers reach their monthly limits on voice,
data, and texting—and also when international roaming charges apply. That means that starting
today, wireless carriers across the country have committed to providing two of the four alerts,
and in six months carriers will provide all four alerts. They will do this free of charge. And they
will not require action on the part of their subscribers to receive these alerts. In addition, they
have agreed to help consumers by disclosing the tools they offer to review usage balances and set
usage limits. Good things, all.
But as the presentation today suggests, the Commission needs to remain the cop on the
beat. So I ask that the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau track the complaints related
to bill shock that reach the agency in the next year and then produce a report summarizing their
findings a year after these voluntary agreements go into effect.
It is my hope that these alerts will reduce the incidence of bill shock, reduce the number
of complaints filed, and increase consumer satisfaction with the wireless services and devices
they rely on every day.
Thank you to the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau for this presentation and
for your work on this issue. Thank you also to Consumers Union and CTIA for your work on
this agreement and for your efforts to improve the consumer wireless experience.