Is the FCC willing to help the ‘little texter’?

Published 10:21 pm Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A good many of us carry around cell phones to keep connected. That’s almost laughable, considering cell phones are relatively new to us.

Back in the early 1970s, people with mobile phones had to go through mobile operators, who patched them through to landlines.

Back in larger cities, those mobile operators also worked their eight hours as answering services for physicians, attorneys and contractors, to name a few.

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Then came the bag phones that gave everybody much more mobility and unfettered many from the mobile operator.

It was about that time — the early days of analog mobile phones — we began to feel what some would call “bill shock.”

Oh, come on. If you’ve ever had a cell phone, you’ve opened up the paper bill [or now one of the digital e-mail versions] and your mouth has fallen open in dull surprise, as Janis Ian once sang, “when payment due exceeds accounts received.”

Beginning today, Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission will propose rules to require mobile phone companies to alert customers by voice or text message when they have reached the monthly limit and are about to get socked by the extra charges.

The New York Times reported Wednesday this is part of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s program to empower the consumer.

With all due respect to the mobile phone companies, it’s about time. A Government Accountability Office report revealed one in three users of cell phones and data networks [yes, accessing the Internet on the iPhone or sending text messages] had received unexpected charges on their bills. That study was conducted in November 2009, less than a year ago.

In fairness to the mobile phone companies, the government report said while the percentages of dissatisfied users “appear to be small, they represent millions of people.”

Other experts place the estimates of those dissatisfied with their billing, terms-of-service contracts or customer service at 270 million. That’s more folk than attend the Alabama-Auburn game, and that’s significant.

The GAO report also pointed out the FCC receives more than 20,000 complaints a year, but provides little oversight of mobile carriers. This, too, is about to change.

Of course, the mobile phone companies aren’t pleased about the changes.

Verizon Wireless filed with the FCC in opposition to the new rules, saying of course the little people should have access to clear information about their wireless usage, but we’ve been competing with other companies to the point we have had to provide that information and our customers have several ways of finding out how much they use.

Yep. Tell that to the guy in Massachusetts, as reported by The Boston Globe, who opened up an $18,000 bill because he didn’t know his mobile service’s free data downloads had expired. The FCC stepped in and The Boston Globe’s coverage helped force the carrier to zero out the balance.

And with these iPads and smartphones, what are we to expect? When does that special run out? When can I get a new phone free? Two years? What, $350 to cancel my service because it doesn’t reach where I need to go? What does my bill say? How do I read it?

The question is: Can the FCC, which hasn’t dabbled in the business that often help the little texter among us? Wonder what plan Genachowski has.

Leesha Faulkner is director of digital media for The Selma Times-Journal. She may be reached at 410-1742 or by e-mail at