WASHINGTON – Regulators voted Thursday to extend "truth-in-billing" guidelines to cell phone bills in hopes it would lead to clearer, shorter statements devoid of unwarranted add-on fees.
All five Federal Communications Commission (search) members supported the measure, which requires cell phone bills to be "brief, clear, non-misleading and in plain language." The guidelines already cover bills for traditional phone service.
The fees, which fall under titles like "Regulatory Assessment Charge" or "Regulatory Cost Recovery Fee" often amount to no more than $1 or $2 a month. Critics contend customers typically aren't told of such fees when shopping for low-priced monthly cell phone plans so they should not be charged.
The FCC said it was misleading for cell phone companies "to represent discretionary line item charges in any manner that suggests" the fees are taxes or government-mandated charges. "Wireless consumers deserve accurate, meaningful billing information in a format they can understand," said FCC Chairman Michael Powell (search), who presided over his final meeting.
The two Democratic commissioners opposed a part of the measure that would pre-empt state regulations covering similar billing issues.
Commissioner Michael Copps (search) said he feared states may not be able to impose their own rules adding or prohibiting add-on fees. Some states have tacked on fees to help fund 911 service or subsidize phone service for poor and rural customers.
While the FCC has received thousands of complaints about line-item charges or other phone bill questions, the agency rarely issues warnings or fines for such violations, Copps said.
The National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, which asked the FCC to rule on the issue, and consumer groups accused the FCC of weakening consumer protections.
"They extended a toothless regulation," said Patrick Pearlman, of the West Virginia Consumer Advocate Division, a branch of the state's public service commission.
Said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat: "Unfortunately, from the consumer's perspective, the most tangible result of this order will likely be less oversight of consumers' bills, not more."
Ellen Williams, vice chair of the Kentucky Public Service Commission, praised the FCC for instituting "uniform rules requiring transparency in billing ... A patchwork system of regulation is of no benefit to anyone."
Congress has recognized cell phone use as an interstate service, Powell said. "As a result, it is simply not sustainable to have a multitude of divergent, and at times intrusive, state-by-state billing regulations," he said.
Powell announced in January that he was stepping down this month after four years as chairman and more than seven years as a commissioner.
The outgoing chairman fought back tears after being lavished with praise by the other commissioners. At meeting's end, he handed the chairman's gavel to FCC Secretary Marlene Dortch, then stood behind his seat at the commission table while receiving a standing ovation. Among those considered possibilities to replace Powell is current Commissioner Kevin Martin, a Republican and former White House aide and lawyer for President Bush's 2000 campaign. His wife, Catherine, is an aide to Bush and formerly worked for Vice President Dick Cheney.
Martin could be an appealing choice for Bush because he would not need Senate confirmation since he is already a commissioner.
He declined to answer questions Thursday about the top job, saying only, "Focus on the chairman."
Martin and Powell did not always see eye to eye, most notably in 2003 when Martin allied with the FCC's two Democrats on a key vote over phone competition rules.
Assistant Commerce Secretary Michael Gallagher — who is also head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — is another possibility for FCC chief. He is already one of Bush's top advisers on telecommunications policy.
Gallagher is interested in the FCC chairmanship, said a Commerce official who declined to be named because the White House search is ongoing.