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FCC Mulls Mobile Phone 'Bill Shock' Warnings

The Federal Communications Commission is considering ways to help consumers anticipate exorbitant wireless phone bills.

It's not looking into ways to reduce the cost of calls, text messages or other wireless service charges, a solution that might have been called for had Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl's 2009 inquiry into soaring text messaging charges found cause for antitrust action.

According to Kohl, American mobile phone users pay more for wireless phone service than mobile phone users in most developed nations, a cost that averaged $507 annually per subscriber in 2007. A typical iPhone user is likely to spend at least twice that in subscription costs annually.

Rather, the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) wants to find ways to provide consumers with more and better information about why they've been charged so much. The hope is to avoid "bill shock," an unpleasant experience for consumers that leads to complaints.

"We are hearing from consumers about unpleasant surprises on their bills," said Joel Gurin, head of the CGB, in a statement. "We've gotten hundreds of complaints about bill shock. But this is an avoidable problem. Avoiding bill shock is good for consumers and ultimately good business for wireless carriers as well."

The CGB appears to be aiming to help consumers stop using their mobile devices before the charges become more than they can afford.

Gurin indicated that the FCC might consider an approach adopted in Europe where mobile carriers are required to alert consumers via text message -- at no cost -- when roaming charges approach a preset threshold or are accumulating at a rapid rate.

The agency issued a public notice seeking input on the idea, specifically: whether technological differences between mobile networks in the U.S. and the E.U. would preclude such a plan; the extent to which current charge monitoring is possible; the utility of usage metrics for difference types of service like voice and data; and the extent to which such information can be made accessible to people with disabilities.

If you have thoughts on the matter, let the FCC know.