Preliminary report findings issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Tuesday depict consumer confusion over usage-based pricing (UBP) for wireless and wireline data services that often do not reach the monthly allowances for which subscribers have paid. Compiled at the request of ranking House Communications Subcommittee member Anna Eshoo (D-CA), the report is based on interviews with officials of the nation’s top 13 wireline Internet service providers (ISPs) and the top four national wireless carriers, which, combined, cover 97% of the U.S. population. The GAO also relied upon the input of various researchers, public interest groups and industry associations as well as eight focus groups that consist of wireline and wireless broadband users across a wide range of socioeconomic groups in Baltimore, Des Moines, New York and Las Vegas. Although the final report is not due until November, a member of Eshoo’s staff noted that the congresswoman is releasing the preliminary results now so they can be included in upcoming reply comments to be filed with the FCC with respect to the Open Internet proceeding.
While focus group members voiced few concerns with usage-based pricing of wireless services, the report depicts “strong negative reactions” to wireline UBP which respondents believe will force them to curtail social media, shopping and other online activities conducted through their home broadband connections. Respondents also cited the difficulty of tracking wireline data usage in the multi-user environment that is commonplace in many households. With respect to wireless UBP, consumers voiced confusion over data caps and other plan details as well as whether “their plans were subject to throttling.”
Meanwhile, among the providers surveyed, all four national wireless carriers affirmed that that they employ UBP while seven of the 13 wireline ISPs use some form of UBP. One wireless carrier explained that, while a small percentage of its customers subscribe to data plans that provide less than 500 MB per month, the average customer uses just 102 MB of data monthly. At the same time, one wireline ISP that offers a 5 GB monthly option reported a small percentage of subscribers on that plan, out of which 20% use less data than is covered by their monthly allotment. Although the GAO said the report results demonstrate that most consumers could benefit from lower cost, low-data plans, the GAO stipulated that “more consumers could exceed data allowances as data usage continues to grow.”