BS (Bill Shock) Day has been and gone and the FCC voted unanimously to gather more information on proposed rules that would require mobile service providers to send usage alerts and related information to customers to help them avoid bill shock. Wow, that’s decisive!

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said there was more than ample evidence showing there is a problem and that a ‘simple technology fix’ can go a long way to solve the problem. I’m sure a lot of CSPs would argue about just how simple that task is, especially if they carry the burden of legacy systems.

Mr Genachowski also mentioned that many CSPs already offer tools to alert consumers before they go over their monthly usage limits, where applicable, but those were the exception and not the rule. He also stated that CSPs should compete on value, price and service – not on confusion.

The Commission proposes that consumers be provided with baseline information that would allow them to control their mobile costs, including:

  • Over-the-Limit Alerts: The FCC’s proposed rules would require customer notification, such as voice or text alerts, when the customer approaches and reaches monthly limits that will result in overage charges.
  • Out-of-the-Country Alerts: The FCC’s proposed rules would require mobile providers to notify customers when they are about to incur international or other roaming charges that are not covered by their monthly plans, and if they will be charged at higher-than-normal rates.
  • Easy-to-Find Tools: The FCC’s proposed rules would require clear disclosure of any tools offered by mobile providers to set usage limits or review usage balances.  The FCC is also asking for comment on whether all carriers should be required to offer the option of capping usage based on limits set by the consumer.

Not surprisingly industry body, CTIA, countered with concerns that prescriptive and costly rules that limit the creative offerings and competitive nature of the industry may threaten to offset any positive trends in keeping customers happy.  Another FCC commissioner suggested that if wireless carriers voluntarily and more uniformly adopt services that inform consumers, the commission may not have to act at all.

The FCC also released a white paper on the complaints the commission has received on mobile bill shock, which is defined as a sudden, unexpected increase in the monthly mobile phone bill. According to an April-May 2010 FCC survey, 30 million Americans, one in six mobile users, have experienced bill shock. The white paper showed that 764 people complained to the FCC in the first half of 2010, and 67 percent of those complained about amounts of $100 or more. Twenty per cent had complaints of $1,000 or more, and the largest complaint was for $68,505!

Just as the FCC sneezed, the Australian regulator half way round the world caught a cold. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said it was also concerned about bill shock and that the way mobile operators measured and communicated data usage was not up to par. Inadequate metering, complex pricing and roaming charges could lead to unexpectedly high bills for consumers. The FCC’s proposal to address bill shock was also being investigated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) as part of its inquiry into customer service.

ACMA began the inquiry following a 54 per cent increase in complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman in 2008-09, including a 120 per cent increase in complaints about complaints-handling and a 72 per cent increase in complaints about customer service.

The Australian mobile industry is already fighting back against any extra regulations with similar claims to the CTIA in the USA that the industry already provided tools for people to monitor their mobile usage quoting that research indicated people “were aware of the monitoring tools available but essentially couldn’t be bothered using them.”

Teresa Corbin, CEO of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, rejected claims that people did not want to monitor their usage. She called on the mobile industry to stop confusing consumers by using marketing terms like capped and unlimited, when in reality there were all sorts of exclusions and fine print.

Hard limits are applied to prepaid accounts and CSPs are quick to point this out. However, in Australia prepaid tariffs are generally higher than postpaid and customers are not keen to make the swap. CSP resistance to voluntary introduction of usage monitoring may be cost-based but the public relations damage it continues to inflict and the growing interest and involvement of regulators must certainly be a more costly route long term.

No wonder vendors of policy management tools are reporting brisk business these days and one suspects that this end of the market is in for considerable growth in the coming year.