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Genachowski: Power to the People!

Flanked by the Consumer Federation of America,
Consumers Union, the National Consumers League and Consumer Action, FCC
Chairman Julius Genachowski Wednesday outlined what he called the FCC's
"consumer empowerment agenda" at the Center for American Progress in

As B&C
reported, the chairman talked about taking steps to reduce bill shock by betterinforming users of potential charges. He also released findings of an FCC study that found
that of the 764 people who had complained about bill shock in the first six months
of 2010, 67% were complaining about amounts of $100 or more, and 20% of $1,000
or more, with the largest being $68,505.

And while bill shock is primarily a phone company
issue at present, the chairman made it clear he was also looking ahead
to a time when a mobile broadband bill will include online video delivery.

"We just got our first look at Google TV, and
new video delivery boxes from Apple and Roku hit store shelves last week,
as the way we watch video on our flat-screen HD TVs continues to evolve."

He went on to say that "The more devices
we buy, the more services we subscribe to, the more perplexing it can be for
consumers. Instead of tracking minutes used, something intuitive -- consumers
are being asked to track megabytes of data consumed."

But the chairman went beyond that issue to talk
broadly about the FCC's consumer mandate, and specifically about his
concerns over early termination fees, both wireless and
"increasingly," fixed broadband bundles.

He said there is a "legitimate case" for
those fees for carriers who subsidize the cost of new phones, but he made no such
caveat for fixed broadband and bundled services, for which he said the fees are
a "fairly recent development."

Reaction to the chairman's announcement was swift.

CTIA, the association that represents wireless
carriers, said it was already working to keep customers happy and informed,
and would do more. But Chris Guttman-McCabe, VP of regulatory affairs, also
said in a statement that CTIA was concerned that "prescriptive
and costly rules that limit the creative offerings and competitive nature of the
industry may threaten to offset these positive trends."

Genachowski gave a shout-out to staffers in
the room representing Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who has introduced a bill
shock bill. Udall returned the shout-out in a statement, but
urged Genachowski to go further.

"While this notification principle will go a long
way toward the goal of reducing bill shock, more should be done,"
Udall said. "The final FCC bill shock rules would prove more effective by
also requiring customer consent, or ‘opt in,' before
phone companies can charge astronomical overages on top of monthly billing
plans," as would his Cell Phone Bill Shock Act (S.3872).

Public Knowledge also wanted more. "We very
much appreciate the action the FCC is expected to take tomorrow to protect
consumers with wireless devices," said PK President Gigi
Sohn. "Telling consumers promptly and in an understandable
fashion when they are about to incur higher-than-normal charges is a modest
requirement that will reap enormous benefits in customer
goodwill. At the same time, we continue to urge the Commission to act on another
item that would benefit wireless consumers - the petition we filed three years
ago to provide legal protections for the content of text
messages and for short codes."

PK wants the FCC to declare that text
messaging and short codes (a way to send texts to large groups) are subject to the
same nondiscrimination regs as voice communications.