Your cable and telephone bills are a mess. Franchise fees. Broadcast retransmission fees. Regional sports fees. HD technology fees. Internet cost recovery fees. Administrative fees. Regulatory fees. The “Local BUS Lic Surchg,” whatever that is.
It’s bad enough that your bill gets bigger each year. But these cryptic fees and surcharges make it hard to predict how much you’ll pay from month to month, and almost impossible to know if the cable company made a mistake.
The Federal Trade Commission has taken a stand against the telco industry’s most noxious practices, yet mystery fees persist. So consumers are taking up the fight. Eight Comcast customers filed a class action suit against Comcast this week, alleging Comcast’s broadcast retransmission fees and regional sports fees constitute false advertising.
“Comcast promises to charge customers a fixed monthly price for the service plans,” the lawsuit says. “But in fact Comcast charges a much higher rate for those plans via concealed and deceptive ‘fees’ which Comcast intentionally disguises in both its advertising and in its customer bills.”
Comcast denies this. A company spokeswoman says that when Comcast introduced the retransmission fee in 2014, it did not apply to customers with a locked-in promotional rate. She also says Comcast discloses the fact that a bill may include taxes and fees in addition to advertised rates. Indeed, you can find these disclaimers on the Comcast website—after clicking a link titled “Pricing & Other Info,” which displays a lengthy block of text that details the caveats attached to the advertised. In other words, you must read the fine print.
The broadcast retransmission fee reflects the increasing fees Comcast pays television networks to license programming. The regional sports fee is tied to the cost of licensing sporting events. Neither is imposed by the government. Although critics argue that these fees are a business cost that should not be passed along to consumers, the Comcast spokeswoman defends the practice, saying the company lists each fee in an effort to be transparent. And she notes that Comcast is not alone in levying these such fees.
False advertising is of course illegal, but these fees are, in most cases, legal. But the issue here isn’t so much the fees, which you could argue are unfair, but the way they make bills so confusing that it can be hard for consumers to ferret out accidental, or even fraudulent, charges. “There isn’t any sort of consistency or uniformity in how this is presented to consumers, to understand this stuff and make informed decisions about what’s on their bills,” says John Gasparini of the advocacy group Public Knowledge. “Then we can get into whether a particular line item is unfair.”
The Federal Communications Commission has kept quiet on the issue of cryptic fees, despite taking a more aggressive posture in recent years. But some of recent moves could help customers. Last week the agency hit Comcast with a $2.3 million fine for charging customers for services they didn’t order. This week FCC settled a $48 million suit with T-Mobile over the way it advertised its “unlimited” data plans.
Gasparini says this week’s class action suit could help, and that the FCC and congress, along with local and state governments could help end the madness of the mystery fees. But as ever, this problem boils down as much to competition as it does to regulation. Pay TV providers typically only have a handful of competitors in any given region, and broadband Internet providers have even fewer. “There’s no market incentive for people to behave,” he says. “We shouldn’t be surprised that they have a rocky at best record on customer service.”
This article was syndicated from wired.com