Wireless carriers kindly agree to send 'voluntary' overage alerts to customers

Industry announces usage notification guidelines to avoid FCC 'bill shock' rules

If there's one thing the wireless industry hates, it's offering full transparency to customers. It's much better for the carriers if subscribers are confused about their data limits, how much data their devices are consuming, etc. (And it's even better if customers don't notice the extra charges on their bills.)

But what the industry hates even more is being told what to do by the government. Thus if it takes offering "voluntary" disclosures in order to avoid having the Federal Communications Commission impose disclosure rules designed to eliminate customer "bill shock," so be it.

CTIA, the wireless industry's trade association, announced the "Wireless Consumer Usage Notification Guidelines" through gritted teeth on Monday "new commitments by providers that represent more than 97 percent of wireless consumers in the U.S. to send free alerts to help consumers avoid unexpected overage charges."

Subscribers will receive the free alerts both before and after they reach monthly limits on voice, data and text, the CTIA said. In addition, international travelers will be notified of roaming charges abroad. Subscribers are automatically covered, but can opt out.

The CTIA's generous announcement was made under pressure from in conjunction with the FCC and Consumer's Union. The FCC had proposed similar rules, but seems to think the industry's "voluntary" protection of consumers will suffice.

However, the FCC reserves the right to enforce rules should wireless carriers violate industry usage notification guidelines.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that one in three wireless subscribers have experienced unexpected charges on their wireless bills. And the FCC has said that "two-thirds of two-thirds of bill shock complaints received by the Commission in the first half of 2010 were for amounts of $100 or greater, and a few bill shock complaints even exceeded $10,000 in disputed charges."

Will the "voluntary" industry guidelines work? We won't find out for awhile. It'll be a year from now before participating carriers provide at least two out of the four notifications for data, voice, text and international roaming, and all alerts won't be available until at least April 17, 2013.

Seriously, 18 months to get this thing off the ground? Hard to believe, but supposedly the carriers will have to invest heavily in upgrading their billing systems, hence the delay.

Meanwhile, CTIA President CEO Steve Largent -- former pro football quarterback-turned-politician-turned-lobbyist -- said, "We appreciate the interest and guidance of FCC Chairman Genachowski and Commissioners, the FCC’s Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau and Consumers Union in highlighting the need to harness technology to help empower consumers."

We really do appreciate it. Now get that gun out of my back.

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