The Federal Communications Commission will vote within the next few weeks on a plan to require telephone companies to give consumers a more complete explanation of new charges appearing on their bills.
The new line-item charges began appearing on long-distance phone bills a few months ago. The charges reflect fees required by the 1996 Telecommunications Act as of Jan. 1 to help subsidize the cost of wiring the nation's schools, libraries and rural health-care facilities to the Internet and to help pay for keeping local phone service affordable for all Americans.
If the five-member commission approves the draft rules, the public will have an opportunity to comment before the rules are adopted.
The new charges are politically sensitive because neither the FCC nor the companies want to be held responsible for them. The companies say the charges are needed to help recoup the cost of the new Internet subsidy program. The FCC says it has reduced access charges--the fees long-distance companies pay local phone companies to begin and end calls--by nearly $2 billion, offsetting the cost of the Internet subsidies.
"Our concerns are when consumers are not given accurate and complete information" about charges that appear on their bills, said Jim Casserly, an aide to FCC Commissioner Susan Ness. The long-distance companies' bills don't point out that access charges have also been cut.