United States Senator Ed Markley and Representative Anna Eshoo have put their heads together and come up with the Truth-in-billing, Remedies, and User Empowerment over Fees act, or TRUE Fees, for short.
The new bill would manifest as an amendment on 1934’s arguably basic Communications Act, which would give it significant enforceability and penalties. The bill would essentially force businesses in the telecommunications and cable industries to give consumers a clearer picture up-front of what they’ll end up paying for services, along with a few other empowering changes for consumers.
The bill’s functions include requiring businesses to advertise prices with their own fees included, excepting any federal or state taxes or surcharges, along with fees that are different from place to place.
That last bit leaves the potential for a loophole, but exploiting it would still be harder than the current practice of simply slapping the extra fees on everybody’s bills without any discrimination. It also pushes back against practices meant to keep people from checking their bill by requiring e-bill access without the creation of an account, through email or “a functional equivalent”.
On top of advocating for transparency, the bill attempts to keep providers from simply raising prices for no reason without fear of backlash. The bill would see providers required to inform customers at least 21 days before a price increase goes into effect, and give consumers on contracts the option to bail out at that point. It also bars price increases on equipment fees without “a substantial increase in functionality”.
Finally, there are provisions regarding dispute resolution. The bill lists out a number of resolution methods, and forbids providers from tipping the scales unfairly against consumers if things go sour in a contract. One of the biggest changes here is a clause forbidding providers to force arbitration or other “alternative dispute resolution” as a condition of service.
Should the new bill make it onto the books, it allows a 180 day grace period from its passage for providers to bring themselves into compliance. The bill is not retroactive, which means that consumers who are currently in contracts that started before the end of the grace period won’t see those protections until they renew or renegotiate.
Prepaid and non-contract consumers, however, will see the full force of the bill before those 180 days are up, lest their provider find themselves in violation of the Communications Act.
The bill comes in the wake of steadily climbing fees across the industry, many of which have arguably no justification. The problem with these fees isn’t necessarily their mere existence, as annoying and unnecessary as they may be; instead, it’s the fact that companies often advertise a price that fails to take these fees into account. The price consumers are told is very often different from what they wind up paying.
This practice can easily blindside lower-income consumers. leave those with higher incomes blissfully unaware as they waste tens of dollars each month, if they happen to use an automatic payment solution. The industry even encourages this exact sort of scenario by offering incentives for automatic payments and charging fees for most or in some cases all types of manually submitted payment.
The bill draws liberally from recent movements throughout the tech world. Google and other companies have seen pushes against forced arbitration for dispute resolution, by way of example. As to clarity in billing, this is something that’s already being pushed for heavily in the industry, with many a smaller competitor touting “all-in” billing solutions in a bid to get competitors to do the same. T-Mobile and Cricket are great examples of providers doing this in the mobile space. Naturally, examples abound elsewhere.
Should this bill come to effect, it will essentially end consumers being forced to blindly eat whatever providers put on their plate, figuratively speaking. While increased scrutiny can only do so much good in a market where organic monopolies exist in many places and competition is always scarce, a bill like this not only helps consumers, but signals to the big companies that lawmakers are no longer willing to bend to lobbying and let them run rampant.