FCC to consider range of wireless carrier concerns

Agency to discuss billing practices, exclusive handheld deals at meeting next week

The Federal Communications Commission will decide next Thursday whether to launch three formal "inquiries" into wireless industry practices.

In interviews today, FCC officials who asked not to be named said there are least six matters before the body involving the wireless industry. The agenda for the monthly meeting includes discussions on the status of competition in the wireless market, how the commission can support innovation and how to provide consumers with better upfront information regarding fees and the total cost of wireless services.

At the prompting of Skype, the commission also plans to discuss voice-over-IP services over wireless networks. In addition, the commission expects to have answers from Apple and Google officials to its questions on why Google Voice does not function on Apple's iPhone. The responses to the commission's questions were due by the end of business today.

The FCC officials said the attention that the agency is giving to the wireless industry is not an official investigation, but is rather a set of related inquiries. Picking up on a theme from the Obama administration, recently installed FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has urged a "fact-based and data-driven" approach to wireless industry inquiries.

In confirmation hearings, Genachowski told Congress that the FCC will look into exclusive handheld deals, such as AT&T's sale of the Apple iPhone, and whether those arrangements hurt competition or limit choice. Exclusive deals became a subject of recent congressional hearings as well.

Free Press and other consumer groups have filed comments to the FCC about the overall cost of wireless services, mainly to consumers and small businesses. The groups argue that consumers and small businesses do not have the same power to bargain with wireless carriers as large businesses and organizations do.

Some reports have said that one of the FCC's potential inquiries will look at fees tacked onto wireless bills. The FCC officials, however, said their wireless agenda is really much broader and is designed to address whether customers are informed upfront of all the costs for their wireless services, including fees not stated on bills.

Specifically, the meeting agenda says the FCC is seeking comments on "whether there are opportunities to protect and empower American consumers by ensuring sufficient access to relevant information about communications services."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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