A treatment for ‘bill shock’

October 27, 2010

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IF THE Federal Communications Commission gets its way, wireless companies will soon be required to send text or voicemail messages to customers who are about to exceed their monthly voice or data plans. The measure would curb billing practices that allow wireless providers to spring hefty charges on consumers who don’t realize how many minutes or megabytes they’re using. If approved, the regulation would use cheap, widely available technology to solve a pervasive problem, and the FCC should press forward even over the wireless industry’s objections.

The FCC took on the issue of wireless “bill shock’’ earlier this year after the Globe published the story of Bob St. Germain, a Dover resident who received an $18,000 bill from Verizon after his son used a cellphone to connect to the Internet without realizing the terms of his family’s wireless contract had changed. Verizon waived the fee after the story ran, but St. Germain’s plight highlighted a growing national problem. The FCC’s proposal would help eliminate any confusion among consumers without imposing an unfair burden on wireless providers. In fact, some companies have already begun alerting customers of looming overage fees voluntarily.

The wireless trade association, CTIA, is making the strange argument that because 97 percent of customer concerns are already addressed through voluntary measures, other companies shouldn’t be forced to follow suit. But the point of the FCC’s proposal would be to protect the other 3 percent of users.

FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker has objected to the proposal as well, arguing that the “well-intentioned regulation’’ might force wireless companies to deal with “unintended costs.’’ In one sense, she’s right: No one likes to face unexpected charges. But wireless companies are in a better position than consumers to predict and address those surprises, which is exactly why the FCC’s proposal should take effect.

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