Will the FCC be as shocked by Comcast's consumer deception as Washington's AG?

27 December 2017 by Steve Blum
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Comcast is even more dishonest that previously suspected, Washington’s attorney general told a Seattle court earlier this month. Bob Ferguson is suing Comcast over its habit of cramming service contracts, that don’t necessarily offer much service, onto monthly cable bills.

You can read the latest filing here. Ferguson’s office summed it up in a press release

A sample of recorded calls between [service protection plan (SPP)] subscribers and Comcast representatives obtained by the Attorney General’s Office reveal that Comcast may have signed up more than half of all SPP subscribers without their consent. Comcast deceived consumers even when mentioning the SPP, telling them the SPP plan was “free” when they signed up, when in fact, Comcast would automatically charge them every month after the first month.

“This new evidence makes clear that Comcast’s conduct is even more egregious than we first realized,” Ferguson said. “The extent of their deception is shocking, and I will hold them accountable for their treatment of Washington consumers"…

Even when Comcast actually mentioned the SPP on the sales call before signing consumers up for the SPP, Comcast continued to engage in deception. Comcast deceptively failed to disclose the SPP was a monthly recurring charge to 20 percent of the Washingtonians in the sample. Rather, Comcast often told subscribers the SPP was added for “free” to their account.

The core issue is whether a cable company, or any other telecoms service provider, can aggressively up sell customers into vaguely described packages, and then hide behind the fine print on later bills or posted on a website. It’s a particularly important question because full disclosure is the sole, broadband-specific consumer protection allowed by the Federal Communications Commission after its vote to repeal network neutrality and other common carrier rules.

The FCC’s current industry-friendly posture is not reassuring in that regard. It’s hung on to the role of consumer disclosure cop, but its recent track record doesn’t offer much reason to think it will be as tough on broadband providers as some state attorneys general. How those duties will be split between the FCC and state enforcers has yet to be determined.