FCC Opens Billing Practices Inquiry

Part of Genachowski's focus on consumers

The FCC Thursday opened an inquiry into truth in billing practices in the communications industry that will take it beyond billing to a more general look at "ensuring sufficient access to relevant information about communications services" at various points in the process.

The inquiry is part of the new chairman's focus on consumers, though the vote was unanimous, as were all three votes in the first public meeting featuring all five FCC commissioners Thursday. Chairman Julius Genachowski said there was no time like the present to rethink consumer information requirements. In this economy, he said, "a surprise charge on a monthly bill or a new service that does not perform as advertised can be a major budget-buster, especially as household spending on communications grows ever larger."

Genashowski, who is nothing if not a technophile, pointed out that new tech can also mean new challenges for the consumers he is also sworn to protect. "Technology has brought us a lot of new choices, but can also lead to confusion about how to evaluate new optionsoming on the market."

The FCC's previous focus on billing information was "relevant only after a consumer has already selected a service provider, and has been restricted to wireline voice and wireless services," the FCC said in its inquiry.

The inquiry seeks information on how much information consumers should be supplied at each stage of the process from choosing a provider and service plan to managing that service or deciding to switch.

It also asks for help from other sectors, including examples of nutrition labeling, fuel efficiency labels, appliance ratings and others.

While the vote was unanimous, it was not without caveat. Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said that the FCC had to keep its limitations in mind. He thanked his colleagues for adding to the inquiry his suggestion for "robust discussions" of the FCC's statutory auithority and First Amendment implications.

That cautionary note was seconded by new Republican Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker. She said the FCC needed to avoid regulating where the marketplace is already responding, and that if it did not strike the proper balance, it could wind up hurting consumers, since the costs of regulation get passed on. "[W] risk imposing costs and other regulatoryburdens on providers that can in turn raise prices, reduce quality of service, and harm innovation," she said.

The FCC gave commenters 45 days to weigh in, and another 15 days for reply comments.