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FCC Proposals Don’t Go Far Enough to Protect Consumers, Threaten Higher Costs

Commission Moves Forward on ATSC 3.0 Transition, Lifeline Revamp, and Robocall Efforts

Thursday, November 16, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today at its November Open Meeting moved forward on several proposals, including the so-called Next Gen TV transition and Lifeline proposals, that could have serious implications and consequences for consumers, according to Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports.

ATSC 3.0 Transition

The Commission passed the Order authorizing the transition to a new broadcast television standard, known as ATSC 3.0. While the Next Gen TV technology has potential benefits for consumers, such as better picture and audio quality, it also raises substantial consumer concerns, including whether consumers will be forced to purchase new equipment in order to view their local TV stations over-the-air and whether consumers could face higher fees.

Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union said, “From the very start, we urged the FCC to focus on ensuring the Next Gen TV transition would not force consumers to buy a new television or subscribe to a pay-TV to get service they otherwise got for free. While the FCC made some effort to limit the consumer harms this transition may cause, we believe questions still remain as to whether consumer service will be interrupted and the Commission could have done more to ensure consumers are protected.  Moreover, we remain concerned that consumers may pay the price for this transition through higher fees from cable providers passing on the cost of the new signal in the future. As this transition moves forward, it’s critical that we ensure the technology’s benefits aren’t outweighed by its costs for consumers.”

Lifeline Program Cuts

The Commission also voted to move forward on a proposal to significantly undercut the Lifeline program that helps eligible low-income consumers receive phone and broadband service. The FCC last year voted to modernize the program and created a stand-alone broadband offering as more consumers rely solely on broadband. However, the FCC Chairman is now proposing to cap the amount it spends on the program and eliminate this offering.

Schwantes said, “Consumers Union is alarmed with the Chairman’s proposal to impose a cap on the Lifeline program that could leave many families shut out. Broadband access is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. Our country continues to face a serious gap in affordable broadband availability that leaves millions of Americans unable to realize the economic, educational, entrepreneurial, and social benefits of this technology. We need to be making it easier for families to afford broadband access, not harder like Chairman Pai is proposing.  In the name of ‘sharpening the focus’ of the Lifeline program, the FCC is really cutting assistance to those consumers who need it most.”

Blocking Fraudulent Robocalls

The FCC also took some action to address robocalls, approving a proposal that clarifies that phone companies can block fraudulently spoofed calls when the subscriber to a phone number asks the provider to block outbound calls appearing to be from that number.  The FCC’s order also makes clear that phone companies can block calls if the spoofed number is invalid (such as phone numbers with area codes that don’t exist), if the number has not been assigned to a provider, or if the number has not been assigned to a customer.

“Today’s vote by the FCC is a positive step, but it only addresses a small percentage of the unwanted robocalls that have become rampant in recent years,” said Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst with Consumers Union.  “Robocalls are a daily nuisance for many Americans and often used by crooks to pull off costly scams.  We need the phone companies to step up their work to develop free, effective call-blocking technologies and start providing their customers with the protection they want and deserve.”

In 2015, Consumers Union launched its End Robocalls campaign, calling on the major phone companies to offer free, advanced call-blocking protection to consumers.  Nearly 750,000 consumers have joined the campaign and urged the phone companies to take action.