Regulators on Thursday voted to extend "truth-in-billing" guidelines to cell phone bills in hopes it would lead to clearer, shorter statements devoid of confusing add-on fees.
All five federal communications commissioners gave their support to the measure that requires cell phone bills to be "brief, clear, non-misleading and in plain language." The guidelines already cover bills for traditional phone service.
The FCC said that it was misleading to suggest that any line item fees in addition to the base rate charged for cell phone service were due to taxes or government-mandated charges.
Such charges must be folded into the base rate so consumers have more accurate comparison of costs when shopping for cell phone service, said FCC chairman Michael Powell, who presided over his last commission meeting.
But the two Democratic commissioners opposed a part of the measure that they said would pre-empt state regulations covering similar billing issues.
"Unfortunately, from the consumer's perspective, the most tangible result of this order will likely be less oversight of consumers' bills, not more," FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said.
Commissioner Michael Copps noted that the FCC had received thousands of complaints about cell phone add-on charges or other billing questions, but that the agency rarely issues warnings or fines against wireless companies for any violations.
The FCC action could also threaten states' abilities to collect fees from cell phone companies that help fund 911 service or which subsidize phone service for poor and rural customers, Copps said.
Powell said he envisioned "an active state partnership in enforcing" the new billing guidelines.