Faster cellphones to bring a wave of new services and charges

The Federal Communications Commission is a key regulator of the telecommunications industry and plays an important role in shaping US. technology policy.
By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 12:22 AM

If you think cellphone bills are complicated now, just wait.

Within weeks, some of the biggest wireless companies will offer super-fast Internet connections for cellphones that rival the speeds delivered to desktop computers. As competitors follow suit with their own juiced-up networks geared for the Web, consumers can expect a cornucopia of new services - along with new charges.

For now, consumers can buy flat-rate monthly data plans from most carriers. But Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile are moving toward tiered pricing packages based on how much data a customer uses. All-you-can-eat plans are no longer available to AT&T's new customers, who must choose from a menu of data services.

"There are a variety of things you can do and a lot is on the table," said Peter Thonis, a spokesman for Verizon Communications. "You could be charged based on useage or by speed difference, or you could do both. There are no definitive answers here."

The Federal Communications Commission is trying to keep up, launching an effort to prevent mystery fees and confusing increases from appearing on cellphone bills. But the wave of changes is only beginning.

Cisco, which provides routers for wireless networks, is working with corporate clients such as Verizon to create even more options for consumers. Users could opt for "turbo charging" streaming video feeds to their smartphone for an extra fee. Just pay a little more for "gold service" compared with "bronze service" for data packages and speeds, said a Cisco official, who wasn't authorized to be identified speaking for the company.

Imagine bundles of television channels such as ESPN and Fox delivered on your iPad or other tablet for a few dollars extra. Add a few more dollars and get parental controls to block R-rated movies and World of Warcraft on your teen's Droid.

Heavy users of Facebook may be able to buy priority service for that application or spend a bit more to keep Twitter's Web site from failing during peak hours.

None of this is offered today, but Cisco says its partners are far along in implementing such new features.

All this, according to consumer groups and analysts, will lead to a labyrinth of fees and charges on cellphone bills that could make an accountant's head spin.

Consumer advocates say confusion is to the advantage of carriers.

"You have a population without true knowledge of how much they are consuming compared to carriers who have true knowledge of demand on their networks, and that assymetry leads to things like bill shock," said Sascha Meinrath, a director of the open technology initiative at the New America Foundation.

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