FCC Consumer Advisory Group Discusses Spectrum, Bill Shock and More

WASHINGTON, July 1, 2010 – The Consumer Advisory Committee meeting at the Federal Communications Commission Wednesday covered a range of issues, including white space spectrum usage, National Broadband Plan implementation concerns, and broadband accessibility to tribal lands and people with disabili

WASHINGTON, July 1, 2010 – The Consumer Advisory Committee meeting at the Federal Communications Commission Wednesday covered a range of issues, including white space spectrum usage, National Broadband Plan implementation concerns, and broadband accessibility to tribal lands and people with disabilities.

Karen Peltz Strauss, deputy bureau chief in the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB), led the accessibility and innovation forum. She focused upon relay services that would make the internet, particularly online videos, accessible to people with disabilities. Strauss also reported on problems that people with disabilities experience with mobile phones, and overviewed some discussion groups working to provide solutions.

Both Strauss and Elizabeth Lyle, who works with the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, advocated a national registry that would allow consumers to learn who are the internet and mobile broadband distributors. Lyle focused on outreach and communication with consumers with complaints through online and in-person forums. She said, “We’re going to need a lot of help from those in the private sector” to identify and provide solutions for broadband accessibility issues.

Yul Kwon, deputy bureau chief in CGB, provided an update on several of the bureau’s recent activities. He said they were in the process of testing broadband speeds, and that they are preparing to begin specifically testing mobile broadband speeds.

He also spoke about CGB’s education efforts for Americans traveling overseas. Many consumers do not research the extra mobile phone costs before traveling and incur expensive and unexpected phone bills. Kwon said the bureau distributed tip sheets about mobile use overseas at Dulles Airport. During the distribution, he said it was clear that most travelers had not even considered a possible extra expense.

Kwon also updated the committee on the developing FCC Native Nations outreach office, and lauded Geoffrey Blackwell’s appointment to head the program. He said “We’re excited to move forward on broadband access to tribal lands. With a dedicated staff and an office, we will be able to work out solutions for broadband access for Native Americans.”

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell urged the committee to continue to do what is best for the consumers. He said “our mission is to provide consumers with choices for competition, which is the best way to protect their interests.” He advocated rekindling action in regards to white spaces action.

He said the FCC took a “large step and a baby step” in ruling that unlicensed devices may use empty white spaces in the frequency spectrum. McDowell said they had approved the concept of a prototype, but left a lot of questions as well. He said it was his vision that in a year-and-a-half, during the holiday season, there would be devices outfitted to use white spaces on store shelves.

Karen Johnson, with CGB, provided data about bill shock, the experience a consumer has upon receiving an expensive and unexpected bill, usually due to exceeding preset calling minutes or text message limits. The European Union requires default notifications from providers that tell consumers, via text message, how close they are to exceeding limits. She proposed looking at providers in the United States to see if any have similar policies.

Johnson also presented the results of an FCC mobile survey that looked at customer experience. Twenty-three percent of those who reported experiencing bill shock said their bill for a month had been over $100. Consumers also reported issues with early termination fees, with 48 percent saying their providers charge a fee exceeding $150.

The same survey found that 91 percent of home internet subscribers were satisfied with their broadband speeds. However, 71 percent of men and 90 percent of women had no idea what their actual connection speed was, which Johnson called “a peculiar disconnect.”

Irene Flannery, with the Telecommunications Access Policy Division, Wireline Competition Bureau, talked about shifting the Universal Service Fund to support the Lifeline and Link-up programs helping underserved households afford the installation and bills for phone service. The National Broadband Plan recommends expanding the service to broadband applications, especially for people who could depend upon broadband as a primary means of communication.

Lawrence Daniels presented the Consumer Protection Working Group’s recommendations. He spoke of a potential product or service that will provide consumers with the information they need before they purchase a broadband subscription, computer, phone, or other device that is internet-connected. He sought input from the committee on the best way to balance giving basic information to consumers and inundating them with too much data.

The Broadband Working Group presented recommendations as well. Group member Lew Craig said their group has focused on shifting Lifeline and Link-up programs from wireline to wireless service. They advocated having discounts that apply to wireless the same way that it applies to wired service. The committee discussed the costs of making the transition, and agreed to seek out possible cost solutions. They also recommended that basic calling service should never be cut off from a consumer, even if the consumer is unable to pay for other mobile applications.

Phoebe Yang gave an overview of the National Broadband Plan and its current implementation status. Yang, the senior advisor to the chairman on broadband in the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis, showed the specific parts of the plan that would apply to adoption and other issues of interest to the committee.

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