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Report from CES: Your Connected Car

Posted January 14th, 2011 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

For years, a major topic at the Consumer Electronics Show has been the increasing sophistication of in-car electronics. Six-speaker sound systems and GPS mapping were only the beginning.  New cars today are often available with options that provide news, entertainment, communication, route planning, and safety – all enabled by wireless broadband.  Many auto manufacturers are pushing the envelope of car connectivity.  For instance, General Motors has the prototype EN-V – a tiny concept car that can use broadband to navigate itself and that comes when you call it from your smartphone.

At a standing-room-only session at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, attendees heard from a roster of companies that are now providing apps for cars. OnStar, a pioneer in the field, is growing its paid-subscription service to provide vehicle security and safety. Pandora, which millions of people already use for a personalized radio experience, is seeking to become as easy to use in your car as it is on your laptop or smartphone. Other companies are specializing in speech recognition, in-car systems integration, and other approaches to make a range of automotive conveniences seamless and safe.

As impressive and enjoyable as this technology can be, there’s a clear potential downside: Driver distraction. We’re still trying to figure out how to deal with the problem of texting and driving, a deadly trend that both government and industry are fighting together.  The Department of Transportation is leading the Federal effort, CTIA launched a teen safe driving initiative, and the FCC hosted a workshop and developed an information clearinghouse on distracted driving. Now these mitigation efforts are further complicated by the increasing range of electronic options that tempt drivers to take their eyes minds off the road.

The good news is that the auto industry is recognizing the risk, more openly than when these innovations were presented at CES a year ago. One auto executive on the apps-for-cars panel put it bluntly: “If we don’t do our job well in our space, we can introduce things that can kill people.” In a session on driver distraction and safety, CES brought together David Strickland, Administrator of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, with experts who have monitored the behavior of drivers and the behavior of cars (a field called telematics) to analyze the problem and find solutions.

While this is still a controversial area, the speakers at CES generally agreed on a few key points that suggest the challenges that still lay in front of us. First, many believe that straightforward bans on texting while driving will not have the hoped-for effect. We have now become so used to living wired lives that it’s hard to give up connectivity in the car; as one speaker said, tongue in cheek, “driving is starting to get in the way of our social networking.” Second, it’s clear that broadband connectivity, with all the apps that it brings, is coming to most cars, and that consumers will increasingly demand it. And third, all this innovation must be managed safely for the good of consumers and of the industry itself. A wake-up call came last week when Consumer Reports denied its Recommended designation to two Ford vehicles because of their distracting voice-and-touchscreen systems.

Several major auto companies are putting their engineers to work to make their cars safe, as well as connected and entertaining. Ford is continually improving its Sync system, a popular option now available in all its vehicles, which uses voice commands to provide music, podcasts, and directions with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. The high-end Mercedes M-Brace system uses voice commands and telematics to provide phone connectivity, entertainment, and safety and security protections. Other automakers are taking similar approaches to the new world of car electronics.

All these advances will provide new options for car buyers – and new challenges for policymakers concerned about auto safety.  What do you look for in a car, and what are your views on safety and driver distraction? Please add a comment to let us know.

Posted in Events Wireless Consumers

Report from CES: How Will You Watch TV?

Posted January 11th, 2011 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

I’m back from the Consumer Electronics Show, the once-a-year showcase for the latest, most innovative consumer technology. With over 130,000 attendees, a show floor the size of six New York City blocks, and IMAX-sized arrays of flat-screen TVs everywhere, the CES can be hard to get your head around. But each year some strong themes emerge.

This year, a major development is what you could call the Emerging Entertainment Ecosystem. We’re moving rapidly into a world where movies, live TV, music, and more will be available on all devices, anywhere and at any time.

The idea of “TV everywhere” has been around for a while. For instance, Slingbox began six years ago by marketing devices that send your TV signal to your smartphone or laptop, wherever you are.  At the Slingbox booth, a rep told me how he’d recently used their product to watch his local TV station via Wi Fi on a plane over the Middle East.  What’s different now is that major manufacturers, software companies, and carriers are partnering to develop fully integrated systems to provide entertainment across devices.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which puts on CES, chose several keynoters to talk about their visions for integrated entertainment. Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg described how his company is developing strategies, infrastructure, and devices that will allow you to view TV or movies in HD with higher download and streaming speeds on your smartphone or tablet. The new XOOM tablet, designed in a partnership between Motorola, Google, and Verizon, is made for this use, and was a popular stop on the CES show floor. The XOOM, expected out early this year on Verizon’s 3G network, will use a new version of Google’s Android platform, called Honeycomb, that’s developed specifically for tablet use and will be upgradeable to Verizon’s new high-speed LTE network by mid-year.

In a similar vein, keynoter Boo-Keun (“BK”) Yoon, President and General Manager of Samsung’s Visual Display Business, presented a vision for integrated entertainment from a product manufacturer’s point of view. The world’s leading manufacturer of 3D televisions, Samsung produces everything from smart TVs, which are large Internet-enabled home units, to smartphones and Galaxy tablets. In partnership with Comcast, Hulu, and others, Samsung is “breaking down the wall between devices.” As Yoon demonstrated, you’ll be able to start watching a movie on your tablet, pause, and resume from the same place on your TV; watch the same live TV on your tablet as in your living room; and use your Galaxy to run your DVR, search for programming, and control your home TV set without using a conventional remote.

Many other major exhibitors on the show floor had demos of their own versions of integrated entertainment. The technology relies on broadband, with programming stored and managed through the Internet cloud and accessible by all kinds of devices. As this new entertainment ecosystem becomes the industry standard, we’ll need to develop faster speeds and greater capacity for both fixed and wireless networks. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that 70 percent of all consumer electronic devices will be connected to the Internet by 2014. With half of all Internet traffic now used for video, and more video use to come, the demands on our infrastructure will ratchet up by the year. The National Broadband Plan makes several recommendations for managing the new demand, and the FCC’s spectrum policy has made the expansion of wireless broadband a priority.

The ultimate goal of all this new technology is a better experience and more opportunities for consumers. Please add a comment to share your thoughts and experiences on TV, the Web, and the entertainment experience you’d like to have in the future.

Posted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Consumers

Internet Service: Would You Switch – and Why?

Posted December 6th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

If you’re like many Americans, you may be wondering whether you should keep the Internet service you have in your home. If you have more than one broadband provider in your area, you may be getting a barrage of advertising encouraging you to switch from your current provider to another one. Should you switch – and if so, why?

At the FCC, we’ve done a representative national survey to find out how satisfied consumers are with their Internet service and what goes into the decision to switch or stick with an ISP. We’re releasing the results of that survey today. It shows that Americans are largely pleased with their Internet service, but have some cause for dissatisfaction – and face obstacles that make it hard for them to switch ISPs.

Our survey found that 38 percent of Internet users have changed service providers in the last three years, more than half of them for a reason other than changing residences. The majority of Internet users seem to be satisfied with their service; most people who haven’t switched say they haven’t even considered it seriously. Still, 38 percent is a significant number, and one that deserves further exploration.

What makes people want to change providers? Two things: Price and performance. Nearly a quarter of home Internet users are dissatisfied with the price they pay for service, and 47 percent of those who switched ISPs said price was a major reason. Even more – 49 percent – said that a major reason they switched was to get a faster or higher performance Internet connection.

Moreover, the survey showed that a sizeable number of people would consider switching ISPs if it was easier to do. They’re deterred not only by the hassle, but by financial considerations – the need to put down a new deposit, pay a set-up or installation fee, or pay an early termination fee. Early termination fees are currently less common for ISPs than for cell-phone service, but they’re still a factor.

This survey, together with earlier data we’ve reported, underscores how much consumers need clear information to help them make smart choices about Internet service. Speed is a major factor that leads people to switch ISPs – but how many of us really understand what speed we’re getting? We previously reported that 80 percent of Americans don’t know their broadband speed, and today’s survey found that most say their monthly bills aren’t clear about speed either. If ISPs are going to compete on speed – which will be good for consumers and good for the country’s broadband infrastructure – then consumers need better information on what speed they need and what speeds they’re getting.

The same is true of price and fees. We’ve found previously that many cell-phone customers don’t know the early termination fees that they’re subject to. As some ISPs start instituting these fees as well, they need to ensure that consumers are fully informed and can factor these fees into their decisions.

Competition among ISPs, like competition in other markets, is good for consumers and good for service providers. And clear information will help consumers make the smart choices that allow competition to work.

We’re interested in your own experience: Have you switched ISPs, or thought about doing so? Post a comment to let us know your views.

(This is cross-posted on Blogband. Please leave your comments on switching ISPs there.)

Posted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Consumers

Pam Gregory and Jamal Mazrui to Lead Accessibility and Innovation Initiative

Posted October 15th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

By Joel Gurin and Karen Peltz Strauss

We are very pleased to announce that Pam Gregory will be the Director, and Jamal Mazrui will be the Deputy Director, of the Commission’s new Accessibility and Innovation Initiative. Chairman Genachowski launched the initiative at a joint White House/ FCC/Department of Commerce event in July, consistent with a recommendation in the National Broadband Plan.

The mission of the Accessibility and Innovation Initiative is to promote collaborative problem-solving among stakeholders to ensure that people with disabilities reap the full benefits of communications technology. We will use many tools to achieve this objective, including the Chairman’s Award, Accessibility and Innovation challenges, workshops, field events, facilitated dialogues, and online tools such as a problem solving commons and a clearinghouse.

We have or will be launching soon accessibility challenges to developers, industry, and students related to accessible wireless apps, cloud computing and cognitive disabilities, web 2.0 accessibility, and geo-location accessibility, as Chairman Genachowski mentioned in his July 19, 2010 speech. In the near future, we will be providing more details on the Chairman’s Award for Advancements in Accessibility as well as other upcoming events.

We are thrilled that Pam has agreed to lead the Accessibility and Innovation Initiative. Pam has been working on disability issues at the FCC since 1996 and was the first chief of the Disability Rights Office. You can contact Pam at Pam.Gregory@fcc.gov.

We are equally thrilled that Jamal Mazrui will be providing leadership to the Accessibility and Innovation Initiative. Jamal has been working as a technology specialist and on disability issues at the Commission since 1999.

We would also like to thank Elizabeth Lyle for her leadership in helping to establish the A&I Initiative. We are happy that she will continue to work with us on these issues, as she takes on new responsibilities as the Special Counsel for Innovation in the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

(Cross-posted at Blogband. To comment, please click here.)

Posted in FCC Staff
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Bill Shock: Starting to Set the Rules

Posted October 14th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

At today’s FCC open meeting, the Chairman and the four other commissioners unanimously voted to propose rules to prevent Bill Shock. These proposed rules would require mobile carriers to send their customers a voice or text message when they are approaching their limit for a text, voice, or data plan, and when they are starting to incur roaming fees. The Commission notes that there are already similar rules in the European Union, where these alerts appear to be helping consumers without putting an undue burden on wireless companies. You can read the proposed rules and the commissioners’ and Chairman’s statements here.

We in the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, which prepared these proposed rules, are happy to have the full support of the Commission as we go forward. What happens next is a period of comment to allow all interested parties – including the industry, consumer groups, and the public at large – to weigh in on our proposals. That’s where you come in. You can go to our Consumer Help Center, at fcc.gov/consumers, and use the “File a Comment With the FCC” button to make your views known. If Bill Shock has happened to you, you can “File a Consumer Complaint” from the same website. You can also share your stories with us posting a comment to this blog, or sending me an e-mail at joel.gurin@fcc.gov.

In voting to propose these rules, the commissioners stressed the importance of a full record in determining the best way to prevent bill shock. The record on Bill Shock is growing all the time. Just yesterday, we learned about a new Consumer Reports online survey that found one-fifth of the respondents had experienced unexpected charges on their wireless bills. We need to hear from experts and the public alike to understand this problem and make sure consumers have the best tools to solve it. Please let us know about your views and your experiences. We look forward to hearing from you.

Posted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Open Meetings Consumers

Fighting Bill Shock: We Hear You Now

Posted October 13th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

As you can read in his blog post here, our Chairman, Julius Genachowski, outlined an ambitious Consumer Empowerment Agenda in his speech earlier today. The goal of that agenda is to ensure that consumers have better, more complete, and more helpful information on all the communications services we use every day. We’re taking the concept of truth in billing and expanding it to truth at every stage – ensuring that you have accurate information when you’re choosing a service provider, choosing a plan, or deciding whether to switch providers, as well as when you’re reading your bill.

Today, we’ve also released a white paper that analyzes the complaints we’ve gotten on wireless bill shock over the past few months. The data are, well, shocking. Out of a total of 764 complaints from January through June, we found that two-thirds involved amounts of a hundred dollars or more; 150 complaints involved a thousand dollars or more; and eight complaints involved 10 thousand dollars or more.

Three consumers at today’s event told stories about their own experiences that show the human side of the bill-shock numbers. One was a woman who was visiting her sister in Haiti when the earthquake hit, and unexpectedly had to use her phone for voice and text back to the U.S. Her carrier told her that they would waive fees for people dealing with this emergency – but it turned out that they only waived fees for voice. She returned home to find a 35 thousand dollar phone bill. The carrier has now waived most of that charge, but is still billing her for over five thousand dollars for using her phone during this emergency situation.

At tomorrow’s Open Commission Meeting the Commission will vote on proposed rules that will take action to prevent bill shock and protect consumers. These rules would require carriers to send you alerts when you’re in danger of running up a high bill. We’ll update you with details on the rulemaking after tomorrow’s vote.

As we take action to fight bill shock and solve other consumer problems, we want to hear your stories. If you post a comment to this blog and want us to follow up, please let us know how we can reach you, either by including your email address in the comment or by sending it to me at joel.gurin@fcc.gov. And if you want to file a complaint with the FCC, you can do so at our Consumer Help Center at FCC.gov/consumers. We’ve heard your concerns over the last several months, and we’re still listening.

Posted in Consumers

Lifeline and Link-Up Programs: Stay Connected!

Posted October 12th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

No one should be without access to vital emergency services and community resources because they can’t afford it.

Using the telephone has become such a routine part of our lives that many of us take for granted that we can pick up a phone and be in contact with family, schools, friends, employers, doctors, emergency services – that we have the ability to stay connected with the rest of the world.   But it is critical that we not leave behind those who are struggling to get basic telephone service and need help to get and stay connected.  Some vulnerable consumers can’t even dial 911 in an emergency.

No one should be without access to vital emergency services and community resources because they can’t afford it.

The Lifeline and Link-Up programs of the Universal Service Fund ensure that all Americans can get basic telephone service by providing limited discounts to consumers who might not otherwise be able to afford service.  Lifeline involves discounts on the monthly charges, and Link-Up involves a discount on the cost of initiating telephone service. The discounts are available for the primary residential telephone, even if it’s a wireless phone.  Many eligible consumers including senior citizens, people with disabilities, veterans and their families, non-English speaking and those living in rural areas and Tribal lands are facing hard economic times, long and short-term.  There are eligible consumers for the Lifeline and Link-Up programs in every state.  But only one-third of eligible Americans participate.  To find out how the Lifeline and Link-Up programs work in your state go to LifelineSupport.org

At the FCC, we’re constantly looking for ways to improve what have already been two very valuable programs.  Teaming up with our partners, the National Association of Regulatory tility Commissioners (NARUC) and the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates (NASUCA), we began a stepped up nation-wide Lifeline outreach effort to reach out to educate and raise public awareness of and participation in the Lifeline and Link-Up programs, beginning with the second annual “National Telephone Discount Lifeline Awareness Week.”

We kicked off Awareness Week 2010 on September 13 with a congressional staff briefing on Capitol Hill.  The take away I got was that everyone has a part to play in spreading the word to those who need and qualify for these important programs.   I was particularly struck by the remarks of one of my fellow speakers, Mark Andersen, Director of the “We are Family Senior Outreach Network” in Washington DC.  Talking about the vulnerable low income seniors he and his volunteers help serve, he cautioned everyone in the audience to consider that the word “Lifeline” is “not hyperbole.”  He reminded that for many, the telephone is their lifeline - that the senior citizens with whom he and his volunteers work generally live on about $800 a month and struggle with being able to stay connected. 

The Lifeline and Link-Up programs offer the 43 million Americans now living at or below the poverty line a means to get connected and pay for basic telephone service immediately.  Our goal in the coming year is to promote awareness nation-wide through education and outreach to assure that the message reaches those that need it.  For more, including outreach tools on getting out the word, go to www.lifeline.gov.

On September 14, Representative Doris Matsui for herself and Representative Edward Markey submitted House Resolution 1616 which expressed the support of Congress for Awareness Week and commended the FCC, NARUC, and NASUCA for their initiative creating Awareness Week to promote Lifeline and Link-Up subscribership.  NARUC President David Coen of Vermont issued a statement in support of the resolution.

In an accompanying guest blog post, New York State Public Service Commissioner, Patricia Acampora, makes clear what is at stake: “Telephone service provides a vital link to family, friends, employment, commercial opportunity and emergency services”.

At the FCC, we’re also looking at ways to improve these programs from the consumer’s perspective.  Consumers have filed complaints about billing, enrollment, equipment, customer service and more. We’ll be taking a closer look at all these issues over the coming year.

Finally, we’re looking at ways to use Lifeline and Link-Up to help close the digital divide.  A national survey done for the Broadband Plan showed that only 40% of Americans with annual household incomes below $20,000 have adopted broadband, and that cost is a major barrier to getting broadband service.

The National Broadband Plan, which the FCC released in March, recommended increasing broadband adoption among low-income Americans through reforms of the Lifeline and Link-Up programs to help support broadband service.  It recommended that the FCC integrate the expanded Lifeline and Link-Up programs with other state and local e-government efforts.  It also recommended that state social service agencies should take a more active role in consumer outreach and in qualifying eligible consumers.  The FCC is looking into facilitating pilot programs to help make these changes happen.

We have some real opportunities to make Lifeline and Link-Up even more efficient, effective, and helpful to consumers.  We are asking for everyone’s help to get out the word to assure that eligible low-income households know about the assistance they can get to “stay connected.” 

Posted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Consumers Lifeline
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One-Stop-Shopping For Consumers

Posted July 27th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

The FCC's website has always had lots of information of interest to consumers but, starting today, this information is just one click away.  Today we are launching the Consumer Help Center.  This site  makes it easy for consumers to learn about our work and take action.  Here, in one place, consumers can do read about consumer issues, get practical advice for avoiding problems, file a complaint, comment on our rulemakings, or read what our FCC experts are saying in our Consumer Blog.  The site includes links to

  • Everything consumers need to know about Bill Shock and Early Termination Fees -- two common issues that affect wireless customers;
  • Savvy Traveler tips -- advice on making phone calls when travelling abroad;
  • Broadband Speed Test -- consumers can test the speed of their broadband service;
  • Fact Sheet Library – more than 150 consumer Fact Sheets on telecom subjects;
  • Links to additional resources on a range of issues, including privacy;
  • Links to file a complaint to the FCC or comment on our rulemakings;
  • Blog posts about consumer issues -- with consumer comments welcome;
  • News releases, statements, and FCC actions.

This is a work in progress and will be updated as more information is added.  Please let us know what you think about the site.  We're listening.

Posted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Consumers Parents
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Early Termination Fees: Share Your Story

Posted July 26th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

For several months, the FCC has been studying early termination fees (ETFs): those fees that wireless carriers charge if you sign a long-term contract and cancel it early.  Generally, in return for signing a contract with an ETF, wireless customers can get substantial discounts on their handheld devices. With the advent of smart phones, many wireless providers have increased both the discounts and the ETFs.  Other contractual services, including some broadband services, now have these early termination fees as well.

You can read about our work on ETFs, including the correspondence we’ve had with wireless carriers and our survey on consumer awareness of ETFs. Now we’d like to give you a chance to join the dialogue. Please comment to this post to let us know your views or your experience with these common fees.

Posted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Consumers

Denying Bill Shock by Distorting the Facts

Posted July 15th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

By Joel Gurin and John Horrigan, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

The FCC receives thousands of complaints a year about cell-phone bill shock – what happens when consumers get sudden, unexpected increases in their bills from one month to the next. In May, we released a national survey, done with two major research firms, showing that 17 percent of Americans – 30 million people – have experienced this problem. Click here for the whitepaper on the FCC survey.  

Now, rather than focusing on ways to address consumers’ concerns, the wireless trade association (CTIA – The Wireless Association) has been hard at work finding unfounded ways to criticize the FCC’s data.   The association’s latest attack on the FCC’s study is based on an astounding misstatement: that as many as 70 percent of the people we interviewed were teenagers. This is simply untrue -- in fact, we made it clear that we interviewed only adults.

Ironically enough, this whopper of an error stemmed from CTIA’s misunderstanding of how research organizations interview cell-phone users, who are an increasingly important part of any survey sample. Click here for a more detailed rebuttal of this and other errors in CTIA’s argument.

It’s unfortunate that CTIA, which represents one of the country’s most innovative and productive industries, has decided that ignoring or distorting the facts is a better strategy than simply addressing wireless customers’ concerns. This trade association apparently believes there’s nothing to worry about if 30 million Americans have gotten sudden increases on their cell-phone bills.

At the FCC, where we handle thousands of complaints a year on exactly this subject, we do believe that it’s a problem, and one that consumers shouldn’t have to experience. Moving forward, we hope that CTIA can work with us on simple solutions to help their customers avoid these costly surprises.

Please read or post comments here.

Cross-posted from Blogband.

Posted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Consumers
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