People With Cell Phones, The FCC Has Your Back

The Federal Communications Commission may be struggling in its attempts to create real network neutrality rules, but it’s having better luck with pushing consumer-friendly reforms in the wireless business. Tomorrow, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski plans to lay the groundwork to help consumers stop incurring giant and unexpected data charges on their mobile phones in a speech, and on Thursday, the FCC will issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on these so-called “Bill Shock” regulations. This effort follows inquiries on mobile VoIP and mystery data charges which have influenced the wider availability of VoIP on handsets and had a role in Verizon’s (s vz) $90 million refund to consumers who inadvertently hit a button on their phones which incurred a data charge.

With 30 million consumers having experienced some kind of surprise on their wireless bill, the rules could help. Back in May, the FCC released data outlining the problem as its first move toward creating some type of regulation. This NPRM that will be issued during a Thursday FCC meeting will propose actual rules as the next step, with a comment period to follow. After it has received and read the comments (and perhaps allowed a few weeks or months for comments on the comments), the FCC will vote on the proposed rules.

Such regulations are already in effect in Europe, and software exists from a variety of vendors already to implement some type of notification via voice or text. In an interview this afternoon, Genachowski declined to go into the details of the rules, but as in all things, it’s those details that will determine how much consumers will benefit. Details such as how the notifications will be issued, at what point they will be sent (in real-time or within a few hours could make a difference), what level of detail they will contain and whether or not the carrier charges for them are all worth paying attention to.

For example, I recently was in Prague on vacation and was kindly reminded each time I downloaded my email that I might incur those dreaded international roaming charges. I had signed up for an unlimited international data plan before leaving, so I was pretty sure I was in the clear, but the notices did give me pause. This would have been awesome if I hadn’t paid for a special plan, but was instead confusing since I had a plan, but was unsure if my email counted under the plan. Details matter.

Genachowski did tell me that in addition to the Bill Shock regulation that I should “stay tuned” for more action or information on the agency’s inquiry into higher early termination fees on smartphones, which both Verizon and AT&T (s T) have enacted. As a wireless consumer, I’m excited to see an active FCC, but as a reporter covering broadband innovation I’m also hoping the agency can get something down with regard to net neutrality or encouraging more competition, especially in wireline.

Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub req’d):