While Verizon's legal victory over the FCC did gut the agency's net neutrality rules, it kept some of the FCC's authority over ISPs intact -- specifically the agency's transparency rules
-- which require that ISPs be straightforward about the "network management practices, performance, and commercial terms" of their broadband services.
In a statement issued today
, the FCC "reminded" wireline and wireless ISPs alike that those rules are still intact and need to be adhered to, lest the agency lightly slap a wrist or two -- maybe.
"Consumers deserve to get the broadband service they pay for," FCC boss Tom Wheeler said in a statement
. "After today, no broadband provider can claim they didn’t know we were watching to see that they disclose accurate information about the services they provide."
"We expect providers to be fully transparent about the details of their services, and we will hold them accountable if they fall down on this obligation to consumers," continues Wheeler.
Will they? The transparency rules Wheeler mentions are also supposed to govern pricing, requiring that ISPs are transparent about monthly pricing and various fees tacked on to user broadband bills.
Yet as I've noted numerous times over the last decade
, ISPs consistently are allowed to bury all manner of nonsensical fees below the line, allowing them to covertly jack up consumer broadband bills while leaving the advertised price the same. This is technically false advertising, but I've never seen the FCC (or any other regulator) seriously address the practice.
The practice not only fools consumers into paying more for service, it skews telecom policy debate and discussion. Most international and domestic price analysis comparisons use the advertised price
. The United States already has some of the most expensive broadband in the world (OECD data
); imagine how we rank were one to include fees?
These days of course there's numerous activation, installation, router and modem rental fees, fees for paying your bill in person, fees for paying your bill via credit card over the phone
, etc. These fees, usually communicated "transparently" via mouseprint, are all used to jack up the already-high price of US broadband and television services, but at least some
of them are tied to actual costs incurred by the ISP. There's numerous other fees charged that involve companies doing absolutely nothing, and exist solely to pad the advertised price post sale
CenturyLink, for example, charges millions of its users a $1 Internet Cost Recovery Fee
and a $1-2 Non Telecom Surcharge
that involve the company doing absolutely nothing.
For years, ISPs have also charged users "regulatory cost recovery fees," claiming these non-government mandated fees offset the cost of ambiguous, unspecified regulation (you're to ignore the fact the telecom industry has been massively deregulated over the last decade).
Most cable operators have also started charging something called a "broadcast TV surcharge
" to counter soaring retransmission increases, despite the fact users are already supposed to be paying for programming hikes as part of their already-skyrocketing overall TV bill. Verizon covertly jacks up the price of voice service
via an "FDV Administrative Charge" to bury programming hikes below the line and keep advertised rates the same. AT&T takes things even further, charging U-Verse users two completely different fees
for this same purpose.
Is letting these kinds of fees continue for a decade the kind of tough enforcement the FCC and Tom Wheeler are talking about? Before anybody can take FCC threats of tough transparency enforcement seriously, they'll need to address the fact they've let ISPs engage in aggressive false advertising on price for almost as long as broadband and television have existed.
Want things to change sometime over the next
decade? Tell the FCC
you consider sneaky fees to be false advertising.