It’s Time for Consumer-Driven Video Market Policies

Tracy Rosenberg, Media Alliance | July 29, 2015

Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a request for comments on how consumers are being charged for video-related services, the notice they are given before these costs appear on their monthly cable bill and whether these fees cause consumers to pay higher prices than the company’s advertised rates for monthly service.  The FCC has always had jurisdiction over how common carriers, broadcast, wireless, satellite, cable companies and other telecom entities address consumer interests in their business practices.

According to the FCC website, through the Consumer Policy division, they are “…tasked with issuing orders to resolve complaints about unauthorized changes in local telecommunication providers (slamming); conducting rulemakings on slamming, truth-in-billing telemarketing and fax advertising; and monitoring informal inquiries and complaints to identify trends that affect consumers.”

Unfortunately, many advocates believe that the focus on consumers has been sidelined since the passage of The 1996 Telecommunications Act.  While the act spurred innovative platforms for video distribution and creative content for internet users, it was to the detriment of cable subscribers who realized no real benefits, and instead have experienced nearly two decades of limited choices for service, rising monthly prices and deteriorating customer service.  With consolidation happening at a breakneck speed in the cable and broadband markets, it is time that the focus of our 21st century video market policy-making process be placed squarely on the protection of the consumer.

For this reason, Media Alliance applauds the FCC’s undertaking to augment their next video competition report with detailed pricing data and information through their comment process.  We have long advocated for increased transparency when it comes to the billing practices of pay-TV and broadband providers and are further encouraged that the FCC’s action is not an isolated incident.

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are increasingly losing their patience with the unscrupulous practices of the pay-TV industry and are calling for inquiries with the interest of consumers in mind.  Last year, Senator McCaskill asked probing questions of cable providers who experienced first-hand how cable operators have overcharged and misled consumers with complicated fee structures and surcharges.  Time and time again, McCaskill has sought to bring accountability to the pay-TV industry by calling for legislative hearings around cable billing practices.

The momentum continued with a letter on July 9 from Senators Al Franken (D-MN), Ed Markey (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) calling for the FCC to collect detailed pricing data on broadband and cable services on a state-by-state basis and comparatively in rural versus urban areas.  Their letter also recognizes the lack of competition in the pay-TV industry citing that fact that only “37 percent of Americans have more than one option for high-speed broadband providers.”  The senators declared that a lack of competitive choices and a marketplace that continues to move toward more consolidation has left Americans with “de facto telecommunications monopolies” across the nation. These are factors that need to be addressed at a granular level by federal regulators.

The FCC’s action to collect broadband and pay-TV pricing data will go a long way in helping consumers better understand exactly what it is they are paying for in their monthly bills.  The pay-TV companies have this information.  We simply need our leaders in Washington D.C. to ask the right questions so that regulators can then deconstruct the fees, surcharges, equipment rentals and other miscellaneous costs.

Thanks to leaders in the nation’s capital, we are taking the first step towards creating greater pricing and billing transparency for consumers of pay-TV and/or Internet subscription services in America.

Tracy Rosenberg is the Executive Director of Media Alliance, a media advocacy group and TVFreedom member.