FCC Considering New Consumer Information Rules

On August 27th, the FCC released a Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) to examine and evaluate the communication customers receive about their telephone service. Specifically, the FCC wants to know if consumers being empowered and protected with the level of information they currently receive when it comes to choosing a service provider, selecting a service plan, managing use of that plan, and deciding whether (and when) to switch providers. A slideshow accompanied the discussion of this item at the FCC’s monthly session. In seeking more information on these topics, the FCC expressed particular interest “in understanding cost-effective best practices in information disclosure from within the communications sector.”

In the NOI, the FCC noted that “access to accurate information plays a central role in maintaining a well-functioning marketplace that encourages competition, innovation, low prices, and high-quality services. It empowers consumers by allowing them to choose services that better meet their needs and match their budgets. And it is essential to ensuring consumers are not subject to surprise charges and can avoid products and services that fall short of their expectations.” Accordingly, the question is asked – what is the level of consumer awareness about communications services – both prior to selecting a provider and after they become customers?

Input is sought about the existing tools to reach customers, new technological means of communication, and which types of providers could be affected by communication requirements for the first time, including Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) and broadband Internet access service providers.

Moreover, the FCC noted that its current Truth-in-Billing rules – including that billing descriptions be brief, clear, non-misleading, and in plain language – were extended to wireless providers in 2005. While extending billing-related consumer protections to VoIP providers was discussed as far back as 2004, the FCC has never acted on the proposals. The new Genachowski FCC has decided the time is ripe to examine these issues and is considering applying a cost/benefit analysis to the question of whether Truth-in-Billing or other consumer information rules should apply to new types of providers.

Because the August 27th document is an NOI, the FCC is seeking preliminary information as to which direction it should take and will following up with proposed rules. Parties will have an opportunity to comment on the proposed rules as well.

Comments on the NOI are due October 13th, with replies due October 28th.

Lou Manuta

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