by Michelle Quinn
SAN FRANCISCO — People often gripe about dropped calls and painfully slow download speeds on their mobile phones — despite wireless carriers’ boasts to the contrary.
Now Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) has a bill that she says would inject some truth in the wireless industry’s advertising claims of “lightning fast” and “supercharged.”Called the Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act, the bill would require the wireless industry to include information such as guaranteed minimum data speed, pricing and network reliability in carriers’ sale and billing material. It would also require the Federal Communications Commission to evaluate the speed and price of high-speed wireless data service.
Eshoo — whose district encompasses the heart of Silicon Valley, which also happens to be a hot spot for dropped calls — said the time has come to call wireless companies on their claims.
“Consumers need to know the truth about the speeds they’re actually getting,” she said in a statement. Her legislation would “establish guidelines for understanding what 4G speed really is and ensure that consumers have all the information they need to make an informed decision.”
Eshoo’s proposal comes as wireless companies are under more scrutiny in Washington and in statehouses and as policymakers, consumers and industry analysts discuss the future of wireless service in the U.S.
Both the Justice Department and the FCC are reviewing AT&T’s bid to buy T-Mobile. The FCC has proposed a plan to address a shortage in spectrum, which some predict will become a crisis in several years, potentially hurting economic growth.
The bill touches on some of the issues that have arisen in the net neutrality debate. The Eshoo bill would require wireless carriers to disclose their network management policies and whether some uses of the network receive higher priority.
Some wireless carriers have pitched their newest networks as 4G, as in fourth generation, a standard created by the International Telecommunication Union. But the carriers have yet to meet the union’s 100-megabit-per-second standard. A March report from PC World found Verizon had the fastest network for laptops but that T-Mobile smartphones are fastest.
Eshoo, the top Democrat on the House’s Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, said it is more critical than ever for consumers to have accurate information about their data plans.
AT&T and several other carriers would not comment on the bill and referred inquiries to CTIA-The Wireless Association.
The bill would add new layers of regulations and fails to take into account how “network speeds can vary depending on a wide variety of factors,” the association said in a statement.
“Congress should resist calls to impose new regulations and instead focus on the real issue, which is making sure that America’s wireless carriers have sufficient spectrum to lead the world in the race to deploy 4G services,” the association said.
“Verizon understands the problem Congresswoman Eshoo is addressing very well,” said Ed McFadden, a spokesman for Verizon. “When companies muddy the waters with exaggerated claims and relegate technology advances into nothing more than marketing games, they shouldn’t be surprised when elected officials insist that consumers receive truthful and accurate information.”
The bill has the support of groups such as Public Knowledge and Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.
Sam Kang, general counsel with the Greenlining Institute, said Eshoo’s bill highlights the nation’s growing reliance on wireless access.
“We’re becoming more dependent, and it’s becoming more important to know what you are getting,” he said. “Speed and reliability are important to the customer.”
In addition to criticizing carriers, consumer groups have complained that the FCC is not doing enough to require telecommunications firms to accurately represent their services and billing.
Benjamin Lennett, senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, said the Eshoo bill could push the FCC to move forward on initiatives such as preventing “bill shock,” i.e., unexpectedly high wireless bills.
“The status quo,” he said, “is not helpful.”