Posted June 21st, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Here at the FCC, we've been working lately on new ways to measure broadband speed and help consumers understand it. We believe that consumers deserve to know what broadband speeds they need for different applications, from email to gaming; what the advertised speeds really mean; and whether they can be sure they're getting the speeds that are advertised. To that end, the FCC is partnering with SamKnows to conduct the first scientific, hardware-based test of broadband performance in America. To help us improve broadband quality in the U.S., volunteer at TestMyISP.com to sign up for this landmark test. The video below explains how it works and how you can get involved.
Posted June 11th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Recent news reports have focused attention on a growing concern: The ways in which wireless and WiFi networks can make consumers’ private data accessible.
In May, Google reported that its Street View cars – used to develop Google Maps – had mistakenly collected personal information sent over WiFi as they drove around, in addition to gathering less intrusive data about the WiFi networks themselves.
Now this week, a group of hackers reported that it had gotten the e-mail addresses of more than 100,000 Apple iPad owners by hacking the Web site of AT&T, Apple’s partner. The hackers also got the ID numbers the iPads use to communicate over the network. The Google and AT&T incidents are different kinds of intrusions, each worrisome in its own way, and each with a different remedy.
The iPad incident appears to be a classic security breach – the kind that could happen, and has happened, to many companies – and is exactly the kind of incident that has led the FCC to focus on cyber security. Our Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau is now addressing cyber security as a high priority. The FCC’s mission is to ensure that broadband networks are safe and secure, and we’re committed to working with all stakeholders to prevent problems like this in the future.
Google’s behavior also raises important concerns. Whether intentional or not, collecting information sent over WiFi networks clearly infringes on consumer privacy. Here, there are some immediate remedies. The Google incident is a reminder that “open” WiFi networks – those that are not encrypted – are all too vulnerable to cyber snooping. The Federal Trade Commission has a guide to wireless safety at that can help you keep your information safe over WiFi. As consumers explore the many benefits of WiFi and mobile broadband, we would all do well to keep these important safeguards in mind.
Posted June 2nd, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Our survey report on broadband speed yesterday attracted national attention and some additional questions. We've been asked for more detail on our findings about customer satisfaction with broadband speed. As we reported, 91 percent of fixed broadband customers are "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with that service, compared to 71 percent who are satisfied with the speed of mobile broadband. A closer look gives a fuller picture.
For fixed broadband, 50 percent of customers were very satisfied with the service overall, 41 percent were somewhat satisfied, 6 percent were "not too" satisfied, and 3 percent were not satisfied at all.
For mobile broadband, we asked specifically about satisfaction with speed, a slightly different question. Here, the numbers were lower: 33 percent very satisfied, 38 percent somewhat satisfied, 8 percent not too satisfied, and 5 percent not satisfied at all. (The other 14 percent said they didn't know.)
What to make of these numbers? A few things.
First, consumers are fairly well satisfied with the speed of the broadband they get at home. Having 50 percent say they are "very satisfied" is a strong showing, although it still leaves room for improvement. Even if people are satisfied with their home broadband speed, however, they may be paying hundreds of dollars a year more than they need to. Consumers still need better information to know what speed they need for the applications they run. And given the split between "very" and "somewhat" satisfied customers, more information on broadband speed would also help consumers choose between different providers.
For mobile broadband, the lower numbers show that this service still has a way to go to improve customer satisfaction - which is especially important as more people turn to mobile for their primary Internet connection. It's technologically harder to deliver high speeds by mobile, so the satisfaction gap between fixed and mobile broadband is understandable. But consider that satisfaction with mobile service overall - not broadband speed specifically - is quite high, with 59 percent very satisfied and 33 percent somewhat so. A decade ago, that satisfaction rate might have been hard to imagine. The wireless industry has made tremendous strides in innovation and service quality overall, and we can expect improvements in mobile broadband speed as well.
Accurate measurements of mobile broadband speed can be a boost to innovation. These measures can help wireless carriers learn more about where their networks function best and where they may fall short. Most consumers now have a choice of mobile broadband providers, and will be able to use these new measures to choose the providers who will serve them best. Consumer choice, in turn, can increase competition, innovation, and ultimately help lead to better broadband service for all.
[Cross-posted on Blogband]Posted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau , Consumers
Posted June 2nd, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
For several months, the FCC has been working to help consumers get more information about the communications services they buy. Our Notice of Inquiry last August asked how we can help consumers make more informed choices about phone, television, and broadband services. That Notice brought out a lot of good ideas from public interest groups, the communications industries, and consumers themselves.
This year, we’ve followed up with a number of consumer initiatives coordinated by the FCC’s Consumer Task Force. We’ve written letters to wireless carriers about their early termination fees, taken on the problem of bill shock, and started to look at broadband speed.
Today, we’re releasing the results of a national survey that shows just how large the information gap is when it comes to broadband. According to this survey, fully 80 percent of Americans with broadband at home don’t know what speed they’re getting. This survey was done through a major firm and drew on a national sample of three thousand consumers.
This ignorance can be costly: The difference between a low-cost, slower broadband plan and a high-speed, more expensive one can be hundreds of dollars a year. In order to get the best service at the best value, consumers first need to understand what broadband speed they need for the applications they want to run. In addition, broadband service providers need to advertise their speeds in clear terms, and consumers need to be assured that the speeds they actually receive match what’s advertised. While broadband providers now advertise “blazing fast” internet service at “up to” a certain speed, that’s not specific enough to help consumers make informed choices.
Today, we’re taking two steps to help both consumers and service providers learn more about how broadband speed is being delivered:
It will take the FCC, public interest groups, and broadband service providers working together to help consumers understand their “need for speed.” The Cable Television Association, and several other broadband service providers, have already supported the FCC’s efforts to develop scientific tests of home broadband speed. We’re confident that we can all work together in the months ahead to turn consumer ignorance into consumer information.
[Cross-posted from Blogband]Posted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau , Consumers
Posted May 11th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
It could happen to anyone, and it happened to me. Last year, I took on a consulting job that involved working out of town. Without realizing it, I began using my cell phone more frequently and for longer conversations. By the time I caught the problem, my monthly bill had gone from about $300 a month to well over $500, two months in a row. I worked out a compromise payment with my carrier and changed to a plan with more monthly minutes. I had learned about bill shock first-hand.
Bill shock – surprising jumps in cell-phone bills that happen without warning – is a common and serious problem. The FCC’s Consumer Center receives complaints all the time from people whose bills may double or triple, going up by hundreds of dollars in a single month. Sometimes cell-phone carriers contact customers when they see an unusual calling pattern, as mine did, to their credit. Often they don’t, and the bills go up.
Bill shock has been a major problem in Europe, where you can go into an international calling zone, at international rates, with as little effort as it takes Americans to drive from one state to another. The European press has reported many cases of bills reaching thousands of Euros. Now the European Union has taken action. Cell-phone carriers in Europe are now required to alert their customers when they’re approaching the limit of their calling plans. This simple solution, which has just gone into effect, should be a practical way to prevent bill shock. At the least, it will ensure that every customer has fair warning.
Today the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau of the FCC issued a Public Notice asking if there are any reasons that the European solution can’t be used in America, and inviting comment on other ways to prevent Bill Shock. This action is one of the first initiatives from the FCC’s new Consumer Task Force. Please let us know your thoughts on how to “stop the shock.” Here are some links to get involved:
• Read our Public Notice and press release
• Learn tips for avoiding bill shock
• If you’ve had a problem with bill shock that your carrier hasn’t resolved, you can reach our Consumer Center at 1-888-CALL-FCC (225-5322) or file a complaint online.
• Comment on the Public Notice for the record (Proceeding #09-158).
• And if you have a general comment on the subject, please add it to this blog below.
Posted in Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau , Public Notices , Consumers
Posted January 25th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
This year, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) looked a lot like an auto show. The show floor had a large area on in-vehicle technology with a lot of vehicles there to demonstrate it. Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally, gave a keynote address describing the new Sync system that Ford is introducing, which you can view here, while Kia unveiled their competitive UVO system – covered by CNET here.
Both Sync and UVO are designed to provide all the different functions consumers might want in a car – not only GPS and sound, but also a number of Web-enabled applications – in an integrated unit. These companies, and others working on similar systems, claim they can improve safety by making these units primarily voice-activated, and by eliminating the need to fiddle with a separate MP3 player, smart phone, and GPS. But at a time when distracted driving has become a major national issue, there are real safety concerns about having these screens in cars – summarized well in a recent New York Times article. While in-car Internet access can have safety benefits – for example, in reaching help in case of an accident – there’s clear cause for concern in having so many different options available on a dashboard screen.
Another issue is the growth of dashboard-mounted DVD players, available both from auto manufacturers and as after-market add-ons. These DVD players are legally supposed to be used only when the car is not moving, but it’s not clear why so many drivers would buy them if that were their only purpose. Even when these DVD players come with safety features that disable them when the car is in motion, drivers may try to override that safeguard. Just search “front-seat DVD player override” online, as I just did, and see what advice you find (but please don’t follow any of it).
My own in-car entertainment is limited to the radio, my MP3 player, and audiobooks, which help keep me awake and focused on long drives. But younger drivers especially have different expectations for their automotive experience. At a CES session on bringing the Internet to the automobile, it was clear that the concept of the car as a full-fledged “infotainment” center has taken hold. One presenter cited a study showing that Generation Y drivers expect driving a car to be like playing a video game – maybe an overstatement, but frightening nonetheless.
At the FCC, we’re very concerned about the problem of distracted driving, which some believe could soon be the leading cause of driving deaths in America. We’re working on this issue with the Department of Transportation, which has taken strong leadership in addressing it. We’re also encouraged to see the consumer electronics industry beginning to show its concern, and to see innovative companies developing new applications and devices to minimize driver distractions. New products and services can let you access your email by voice rather than typing on a smartphone; disable your cell phone and send automated email responses while you’re driving; and in other ways reduce cognitive distractions while on the road.
We believe that solving the problem of distracted driving requires a combination of education, law enforcement, behavioral change, and innovation. You can access our resources on distracted driving, including a workshop we held in November 2009, at the CGB section of FCC.gov. And we welcome your ideas on the best ways to address this important issue.
Posted January 22nd, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
My first visit to the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month was an eye-opening and eye-popping experience. You can read about the recent show at www.cesweb.org or in a multitude of news reports. The 2500 exhibits included 3D television, sophisticated voice-activated technology, clever handheld devices, “slate” laptops that function as ultra-portable computers and e-book readers, and a new gaming system that lets you move your whole body as the game controller. It’s clear that we’re not in the 20th century any more.
But the overwhelming theme, for me, was the actualization of a word I’ve heard for years: Convergence. Ever since I became involved in website development in the late 1990s, people have talked about the convergence of the internet, voice communications, television, and other forms of entertainment and applications in an integrated form. For years, this was going to happen any day now – but while progress has been made, many efforts at integration have been more kludgy than seamless. At CES, it looked like “any day” is now finally here. Exhibit after exhibit, and session after session, gave evidence that different communications services are now becoming integrated in truly seamless ways.
By the end of 2010, most HDTVs are expected to be Internet-ready, allowing you to connect them to the Web without having to go through a laptop to do it. This makes it possible to access all kinds of Web applications easily on a large-screen TV. One major application for TV may be Skype, which is partnering with several TV manufacturers to turn your television into a large-scale video conference unit with an add-on high-definition camera and microphone system.
At the other end of the scale, handheld devices are becoming even more versatile, full-service units. Google’s Android gives service providers and device manufacturers a new platform to bring together phone and texting, Web access, GPS, and a host of applications. And new companies are finding ways to bring TV to your handheld – by downloading programs from your DVR, setting up portable Wi-Fi hotspots, or using the Web to connect your home TV and all its functionality to any device you own.
The industry is now talking about “three screens” – handheld, desktop or laptop, and TV – that will all have the same functionality and will be able to supply the same content. This seamless convergence will offer new benefits to consumers – and will also heighten concerns about the use of spectrum and other issues involving our work at FCC. We’d like to hear about your experiences with these different products and services and any questions or suggestions you have.
The Consumer Electronics Show also made it clear that a fourth screen is emerging – the screen, or screens, that we have in our cars. That’s a screen that raises both opportunities and serious issues, as I’ll discuss in my next post.
Posted January 18th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
I’m writing this post at the end of my first month at the FCC, and a week after coming back from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – one of the largest annual conventions in the country, and a benchmark event for all of us who care about consumer technology and communications. Before I share some insights from CES, I’d like to let you know a few things about my background and how I’ve come to be at the FCC.
I’ve been involved in consumer issues throughout my career – as a journalist, book author, magazine editor, Web strategist, and advocate. What brought me to the FCC, as head of our Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, was my 15 years at Consumer Reports. I began there as Science Editor, was Editorial Director and Editor of Consumer Reports magazine for three years, and then served as Executive Vice President of the parent organization, Consumers Union, for almost a decade. During my time as Executive VP, I oversaw editorial, publishing, product testing, and other areas, and directed the launch and expansion of our website at www.ConsumerReports.org. That website is believed to be the largest paid-content information-based site in the world, with more than three million subscribers.
My years at Consumer Reports taught me that consumers have a more personal relationship with communications products and services than they do with almost anything else they buy. At Consumer Reports, our readers couldn’t get enough information about smartphones, internet service providers, online services, digital TV, and the rest of the communications ecosystem. It’s not surprising. Communications technology is central to everyone’s life. We use it every day to connect with our families, shop, find entertainment, do business, and learn about social issues that are central to our democracy.
Here at the FCC, our Consumer bureau will look at consumer issues across the board, in wireless, cable, online, and bundled and other services. We’re committed to ensuring that consumers have the information they need to choose a service provider, choose a service plan, review their bills, and, when appropriate, consider changing providers.
In August 2009, the FCC put out a Notice of Inquiry asking for input on what kinds of information should be made public, and in what way, to support consumer choice. We’ve gotten many good comments from consumers, state governments and agencies, and the industry, and are now reviewing these comments as we determine our next steps. We believe that information and transparency help both consumers and service providers: Making terms of service clear to everyone fosters a truly competitive marketplace.
I’m delighted to be here at the FCC, and hope that my background and experience will serve both the Commission and the consumers who count on us. In my first days here, I’ve found an agency with extraordinary colleagues and truly visionary leadership.
A highlight of the Consumer Electronics Show for all of us there from the FCC was the chance to see our Chairman and a panel of three FCC Commissioners speak to two standing-room-only crowds. You can read about their sessions here and here. The enthusiastic response to their sessions underscored how much everyone involved with communications technology is counting on our agency to help consumers and help foster innovation. Preserving the open internet, allocating spectrum, developing a national broadband plan – all of these issues, and more, are central to the future of communications and central to the FCC’s work. I and others in the agency will be posting regularly to keep you up to date on our efforts and invite your comments, questions, and suggestions for us.