Penalties, but not prevention, for deceptive ISP billing practices

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Consumer reports cable billing 3oct2019

Cost of Cable Fees in an Average
Monthly Cable Bill (2018). Source: Consumer Reports

It’s common practice for big, monopoly model broadband providers to promise low prices to new subscribers, then tack on arbitrary fees after they’re locked into long term contracts. AT&T was recently slammed for adding a property tax surcharge to some customers’ bills – no one has figured out yet why AT&T thinks it can do that in the first place, let alone why it more than doubled the charge – California property tax rate hikes are tightly restricted. Frontier Communications also adds fees on top of the rates customers have agreed to.

Comcast is a frequent target of consumer billing complaints, and state attorneys general are listening. Just about a year ago, the Minnesota attorney general took Comcast to court over billing practices. The case was settled on Wednesday. According to the Minnesota AG

Part of being able to afford your life means knowing the full cost of what you’re getting, getting what you were promised, not being overcharged for things you didn’t ask for, and not being unfairly charged to get rid of things you didn’t ask for. But when people signed up for Comcast, that’s what happened to them…This settlement will help put money back in Comcast’s customers’ pockets where it should have been in the first place. Just as importantly, it provides millions of dollars’ worth of debt relief. And we’ve made sure that going forward, Comcast customers will know exactly how much they’ll pay for service before they sign up for it. That should put an end to unpleasant surprises.

Another deceptive billing case in Washington state last year resulted in Comcast being hit with a $9 million fine, plus orders to make refunds to customers.

It’s not just broadband service – arbitrary fees are added to the full range of products and services that telephone and cable companies provide. A study by Consumer Reports showed that the typical cable TV customer pays an extra $450 a year, just because. The graphic above breaks that down.

So far, little has been done to stop deceptive billing practices in the first place. That could change. The Federal Communications Commission’s declaration that broadband isn’t a telecommunications service passed the buck to the Federal Trade Commission, which might or might not get around to doing something about it. State governments also have a role to play – a federal appeals court opened the door to broadband consumer protection laws and other state-level regulation last year. So far though, no one in Sacramento has shown much interest in walking through it.