Warning! Your Wireless Bill Is About to Explode

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The FCC is proposing a new requirement that would force wireless companies to alert customers—probably via text message—when they’re about to get hit with overage charges for exceeding their plan’s data or text limits.

Late last year, the U.S. General Accountability Office came out with a report that said something most wireless customers already knew: “FCC Needs to Improve Oversight of Wireless Phone Services.” At that point, the FCC had already been revamping consumer protection efforts regarding phone and telecommunications practices, and as the AP now reports, the FCC’s new overage alert requirement is:

part of a broader push at the commission to enact strong consumer-protection measures across the telecom industry.

Last summer, the FCC opened an inquiry into so-called truth-in-billing rules, which require phone companies to clearly describe charges on customer bills. The agency has been looking into whether the largest wireless companies give customers adequate notice about early-termination fees for breaking a service contract before it expires. Separately, the FCC is examining whether broadband providers deliver Internet connections that actually reach advertised speeds.

When it comes to broadband, you might have heard, ad-speak phrases like “speeds up to” can be misleading, or just plain meaningless.

The WSJ explains that similar overage alert rules went into effect recently in Europe after customers complained that they were being charged surprising—and surprisingly large—data-roaming fees. And apparently the new rules weren’t much of a burden to institute:

“This very simple solution of requiring text or voice alerts when someone is getting into dangerous territory could be helpful,” said Joel Gurin, head of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. “Our sense is that this has not been a particularly difficult thing to implement in the EU and the same principle could be applied in the U.S.”

Consumer groups obviously support the new requirement:

“This is a helpful first step down what we hope will be a much longer road to provide wireless consumers with relief and protection in the marketplace,” said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. “When a consumer signs up for wireless service, they don’t expect to receive a monthly bill that can sometimes equal the cost of a used car.”

Wireless companies are saying that the alerts aren’t necessary, and that there are already all sorts of ways for consumers to monitor their bills, control usage, and limit fees. But come on: In the same way that banks have been milking overdraft fees and they’re now paying the consequences of overdoing the good thing they had going, wireless companies have reaped the benefits of fees. For one thing, the presence of these hefty fees caused many customers to sign up for expensive unlimited plans—because even if their usage was usually low, they didn’t want to ever get smacked with a big bill after an atypically heavy-use month.

If the fees really were easy to avoid, or if the fees were reasonable rather than astronomical, the FCC’s suggested requirements wouldn’t be necessary. But here we are.

The wireless companies’ message that there are ways to avoid surprise charges and big bills just isn’t getting through to consumers. And, considering that wireless companies are in the communications business, it would make sense that they’d be better at communicating with their customers. For instance, by alerting them when their bill is about to skyrocket.