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FCC's Consumer Bureau Looks to Get Handle on Actual Broadband Speeds

Helping consumers get a handle on the actual speeds of their broadband service is likely to be one of the next
initiatives out of the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.  Shedding more light on early termination fees for bundled cable services is also on the radar.

That is according to Joel Gurin, chief of the bureau and former editor of Consumer Reports, who talked to reporters
Tuesday (May 11) following the announcement that the bureau was seeking comment on how and whether it should require wireless carriers to automatically inform subscribers about potential high charges for roaming or data usage.
While the "bill shocker" automatic notification proposal is targeted to wireless service, Gurin was not ruling out some similar application to wired broadband service usage caps. "We haven't looked at that yet, but it is an interesting idea and I think I will be interested to see if we receive comments on that."

Gurin said consumer issues are "very, very" important to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

While that "bill shock" countermeasure was the first initiative stemming from a 2009 notice of inquiry on transparency and notice across a range of communications services, he said helping consumers get a handle on broadband speeds was teed up and of great interest. "We have begun talking with the industry," he said, "and we are actually pulling together a task force working group that will include people from industry, consumer groups and outside experts."

Gurin said that the three things consumers should be told about their broadband speed is 1) exactly what speed they need for what they want to do--gamers need a certain kind of performance," he said.  "There is no real industry agreement on what those standards are," he said, but added that industry agrees it is an area that needs to be more standardized. The other two things consumers need to know, he said, is what advertised speed means, and whether they are getting that speed.

"We actually have gotten some very positive comments from NCTA and others in the industry about this initiative. I
think there is a general understanding and agreement that we need to put some markers in place."

Gurin took a gentle shot at broadband marketers, saying that they all talked about speeds "up to" a certain number
and that, in looking at the ads, "the one thing they all have in common is that they are all blazing fast," which is not, he points out, "a quantitative assessment." He said that that "up to" needs to be "teased apart."

Gurin said that the bureau is looking to quantify the speeds and make the process more scientific. It has already launched an initiative to measure broadband speed, which he said would be a prerequsite to any action.

He said the other issue teed up is early termination fees (ETFs). The FCC has already sent letters to the major
wireless carriers asking for information on those fees.

Gurin said the bureau had been hearing some concern from consumers about ETFs for bundled cable services. "I think as part of our overall look at how ETFs should be handled and disclosed, that may be an area we look at as well."

He could not quantify the complaint, in part because the commission has not been breaking them out separately.
The FCC's consumer call center gets about a million complaints a year, he said, and when they begin to see a "critical mass" of specific complaints it breaks them out into a new category. He said it would be looking at doing that for ETF commplaints.