FCC & Carriers Work to Help Consumers Avoid “Bill Shock”

Wireless Bill ShockImage via Shutterstock

Now that unlimited data plans for iPhones are all-but-dead, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) have launched a joint initiative to help mobile subscribers avoid costly overages on their voice, data, and texting plans by adopting a unified method of alerting customers when they reach their monthly limits (via PCWorld). The initiative is voluntary but thus far all major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint — as well as many regional carriers have signed on.

Under the new alert system, carriers will be responsible for contacting their customers twice: once when the customer is about to reach their monthly allotment of a particular category, and once again when they’ve actually reached it. The categories covered are voice, data, SMS/text messages, and international roaming. All carriers who are part of the agreement must begin to alert customers on two of those four categories by October 2012, and all four by April 2013. 

To help wireless customers gauge their carrier’s adoption of this system, the FCC has set up a website on which it tracks carrier compliance to date. Currently, T-Mobile leads the pack, already alerting customers to overages on voice, data, and international roaming. The country’s two largest carriers, AT&T and Verizon, thus far only alert customers on their data plans. None of the regional carriers, many of which are now supporting the iPhone, offer alerts.

Carrier ComplianceCarrier compliance with alert system as of April 19, 2012

The FCC hopes this plan will help consumers avoid surprising, and occasionally financially devastating, wireless bills. The agency claims that 30 million U.S. wireless customers, about one out of every six customers, has already experienced “bill shock” due to “unclear or misunderstood advertising, unanticipated roaming or data charges, and other problems.” With more and more users switching to internet-enabled smartphones, the problem is likely to get worse in the absence of billing guidelines and consumer education.

Wireless customers who feel they’ve already been improperly billed can contact the FCC to file a complaint.