We Had To Pass A Law To Stop Telecom Monopolies From Charging You ‘Rental Fees’ For Things You Already Own

from the broken-industries dept

For much of the last few years, broadband customers have been complaining that Frontier Communications, the nation’s third-biggest telco, had been charging its customers a rental fee for modems they already owned. Normally, you’re supposed to be able to buy your own modem instead of paying your ISP a rental fee upwards of $10 per month. To nab some extra dough from captive customers, Frontier basically decided to charge its customers a rental fee anyway, giving them a polite, though giant, middle finger when they complained.

This façade persisted until customers had a problem with their hardware, at which point the ISP would just shrug and claim there was nothing they could do. When consumers complained to the Trump FCC about this, the agency did… absolutely nothing. As with most complaints to the Trump FCC, the agency just forwards your complaint to the ISP in question then does… nothing whatsoever.

This kind of behavior is the norm for the broadband industry, given it faces minimal pressure to try harder due to limited competition and captured regulators. So consumer advocates last year successfully pushed for the passage of the Television Viewer Protection Act (TVPA). The law, which likely would have never made it past a broken and corrupt Congress in standalone form, had to be shoveled into a budget bill in order to be passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in December 2019. It’s not likely that many, including Trump, even noticed that the provision existed in the broader bill.

The bill prohibits charging consumers a rental fee for hardware they already own. It also requires that ISPs be a bit more transparent about all the bullshit fees broadband providers use to pad their advertised rates. And it gives you a 24 hours to cancel cable TV for any reason. It’s not perfect; the bill doesn’t prohibit ISPs from using bogus fees to raise your rate while under contract. It’s also loosely worded enough that ISPs could likely find some new ways to tap dance around it. But it’s still a step in the right direction:

“For years, consumers have been misled by pay-TV providers advertising service for one price and then charging another,” Public Knowledge Senior VP Harold Feld said in a press release today. “Until now, consumers have had zero recourse for dealing with these surprise fees other than ending service and paying an unfair termination fee for the privilege. Not anymore.”

Granted, even after the bill was passed, the FCC delayed implementing it for six months, arguing that not ripping consumers off was too onerous of a requirement to place on a regional telecom monopoly during a pandemic. Keep in mind Frontier is a bankrupt mess with a long history of dodgy behavior and fraud. And, more often than not, the FCC’s reaction (basically: ¯_(ツ)_/¯) is pretty much the norm. Especially during the Trump FCC, which is so disinterested in consumer protection, it effectively lobotomized its authority just because Comcast and AT&T asked it to.

The cable industry alone makes a whopping $28 billion annually in bullshit fees. They’ve been doing this sort of thing for decades and, aside from the occasional noise, the U.S. government simply couldn’t give any less of a shit. And of course it’s not just telecom. Countless heavily monopolized sectors (banking, airlines) engage in the same behavior, and those in a position to do something about it simply couldn’t care less. There’s almost an understated American belief that tricking users into paying more via bogus fees is just creative pricing and it’s the consumer’s fault for being ripped off.

So here we are. Having to sneakily pass a new law to stop monopolies from charging you even more money for things you already own. Now we have to wait to see if anybody can be bothered to actually enforce it.

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Filed Under: broadband, fcc, fees, ownership, rental fees, sneaky fees, tvpaCompanies: frontier communications