B’bye, bill shock? FCC gets deal from carriers

Wireless consumers will be alerted in real time when they’re about to go over their voice, data, or text-messaging limits thanks to a new voluntary agreement struck between the wireless industry and the Federal Communications Commission.

On Monday, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and the head of theCTIA, the wireless industry’s trade group, Steve Largent, are expected to reveal the new plan at a press conference in Washington, D.C. As part of the deal between the government and industry, wireless operators will send alerts to customers who are in danger of exceeding their monthly voice, data, and text limits.

The goal is to ensure that people are not surprised by hefty monthly charges. A year ago the FCC identified “bill shock” as a major issue for consumers. The agency said that in the first half of 2010 it had received more than 764 complaints from consumers, who said they were surprised by additional charges on their bill for going over their limits or being charged very high roaming fees when they traveled internationally.

One woman, who was in Haiti during the earthquake in 2010, said she came home to a $30,000 cell phone bill from T-Mobile USA.

A year ago, the FCC proposed adopting regulation to force the industry to provide alerts to customers. The industry opposed this regulation, but as the rule-making process unfolded, the two sides struck an agreement under which cellular carriers will voluntarily send alerts to subscribers to warn them about overages.

Goodbye ‘bill shock’

Specifically, consumers will be alerted when they are approaching or have gone over their monthly usage limit. And carriers will also provide alerts when consumers travel internationally, warning them that they may incur additional fees if they use their phones.

Several major carriers already provide such alerts. For example, AT&T sends text messages to consumers traveling abroad to tell them that international roaming rates apply. The nation’s largest wireless providers, AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA, have agreed to the new guidelines.

The alerts sent to customers from the carriers will be free of charge to customers, but people are able to opt out of the warnings if they choose to do so.

The new alerts will begin within 18 months, and they will apply to both wireless phone andtablet services.

The new rules come at a time when the potential for even more bill shock is increasing, as wireless operators move away from unlimited data services toward plans where people are charged a monthly fee for how much data they use. AT&T was the first carrier to eliminate its unlimited smartphone data plan. And Verizon Wireless followed this summer with its own tiered data plans. Sprint Nextel is the only major wireless carrier still offering an unlimited data plan. And there’s still a big question about how long the carrier will be able to offer such a plan, since it now offers the data hungryiPhone.

Most of the carriers already offer tools to help customers track their data usage. And there are several apps, from companies including DataMan Pro, 3G Watchdog and Onavo, available for wireless users to help people manage their data usage. some apps just track usage, while others like Onavo also compress data so that people use less data every month.