WASHINGTON -- U.S. consumers often incorrectly estimate how much data they consume online and pay Internet providers for more downloading and uploading than they actually do, the Government Accountability Office said in findings released Tuesday.
The preliminary observations cover usage-based pricing, in which consumers pay Internet service providers for a specific amount of data they agree to consume instead of a flat fee for unlimited data. Users who go over data caps usually face extra charges or slower Internet speeds.
In a study requested by California Rep. Anna Eshoo, the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found consumers often were unclear about what online activities consumed the most data and paid ISPs too much either for data they did not use or through overage fees for exceeding data caps.
212 Gigabytes a Month
Most wireline ISPs told the GAO that usually only 1 to 2 percent of users exceeded their data caps. However, data from Canadian ISP research firm Sandvine showed that people relying on the Web to replace traditional TV services consumed an average of 212 gigabytes of data a month, which is close to many existing data allowances, the GAO said, and could mean more consumers may be exceeding their caps in the future.
All four top U.S. wireless carriers -- Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T), Sprint (S) and T-Mobile US (TMUS) - offer tiered pricing plans and so do seven of the top 13 wireline ISPs, though only three said they charged overage fees, GAO said.
ISPs say usage-based pricing allows consumers who use less data to pay accordingly and, in the case of wireless carriers, helps manage congested networks.
Focus Groups Dislike Pricing Structure
Consumers in eight focus groups the GAO conducted expressed few serious concerns about usage-based pricing of wireless Internet plans, but they had "strong negative reactions" to such pricing of wireline ISPs.
Those worries stemmed from the consumers' heavy reliance on Internet access at home, where they were not used to worrying about data limits, and concerns that ISPs would use data caps as a loophole to increase their bills.
However, the GAO said that the worries were in part based on misconceptions about how little data is consumed by activities such as online shopping or social media applications. At the same time, automatic updates of programs or applications could be a hidden source of data use, and ISPs themselves sometimes differently estimated data use of similar web apps.
Managing Traffic Online
The full GAO report is due in November. The preliminary findings come as the Federal Communications Commission is looking to set new rules for how ISPs should manage Web traffic on their networks.
Some consumer advocates have expressed worries that ISPs may hurt competition by exempting affiliated services from data caps.
The GAO's preliminary observations stated that usage-based pricing could limit innovation or creation of data-heavy apps because some consumers may restrict their Internet use to save money.
You're Probably Wrong on Your Data Use - and It Costs You
From general practitioners to dentists to acupuncturists, many health care providers offer discounts when you send them a word-of-mouth referral. It may only be $50 or so, but money is money.
It doesn't hurt to ask for a discount: The worst your doctor can say is "no." Many practitioners offer lower rates when you pay with cash or check instead of a card. (They also offer payment plan options if you can't afford to pay all at once.)
Bring up as many concerns with your primary-care physician during an office visit as possible, advises Adam Beck, assistant professor of health insurance at The American College, which trains people in the finance industry. "Your doctor will be able to test and treat you for a variety of potential ailments or conditions while paying one co-pay, as opposed to returning each time you think something is awry."
Always review your medical bills the same way you would a restaurant bill. If you feel like a billing mistake was made -- or that you've been overcharged -- speak up. "The Medical Billing Advocates of America estimates that roughly eight out of 10 medical bills contain errors," says Allen Erenbaum of the Consumer Health Alliance, a national association for non-insurance discount health care programs. "All prescription drugs and medical procedures have codes, and sometimes there could be a costly mistake." If you need help, you can find patient and billing advocates through MedicalBillMediation.com and Medical Billing Advocates of America.
"Establish a relationship with a primary-care physician and have all the routine screening done that is recommended for someone of your age and gender," advises John Garner, author of the "Health Insurance Answer Book." "Catching problems early is not only less expensive, but it could save your life." (Of course, you are exercising daily and eating nutritiously.)
Make a habit of requesting the generic alternatives for prescriptions. Your doctors may write their prescriptions this way automatically, but it never hurts to remind them. Additionally, ask if there's a different form of the same medication. "For example, if you are prescribed tablets, ask if you may take capsules or lozenges. Sometimes the difference in cost with your insurance can mean a difference in half the tablet price. I've saved lots of customers this way just by calling their doctor for them personally," says pharmacist Steve Levin, owner of Woodland Hills Pharmacy in California. The wisdom of buying cheaper generics also applies to over-the-counter medications. For example, Target sells a 100-tablet bottle of Tylenol for $6.99, while its store brand of acetaminophen costs $5.29 for 250 tablets.
The emergency room may seem like your best bet when you don't have time to wait for an appointment, but it should only be used in life-threatening situations. The ER is much more expensive than a visit to your family doctor, sometimes by hundreds of dollars -- and that's before you even get to your actual treatment. If you can't wait to see a physician, or you're out of town, your best option is an urgent care center. They are often a little more expensive than visiting a general practitioner, but definitely less costly than the ER.
Medical bills can add up quickly, especially when a doctor starts doing test after test. Garner says to always ask questions such as, "Is this test or procedure necessary?" and don't settle for vague answers.
Get the insurance coverage that works best for your family's needs. If you're a relatively healthy person who goes to the doctor once a year and the dentist every six months, but usually nothing more, skip the ultra-expensive premium with a low deductible. Contrarily, if you find yourself visiting the doctor more often, an insurance plan with a low deductible could save you much more even though your premium is higher. To better understand your choices, consult a licensed health insurance agent.
"Non-insurance discount health plans can save you money on ancillary services your insurance typically does not cover, like dental care, vision, prescriptions, alternative medicine and more," explains Erenbaum. According to the Consumer Health Alliance, you can save 20 percent to 60 percent on services with a non-insurance discount plan. Check out America's Premier Benefits, New Benefits, Careington and DentalPlans.
"If you require a medication that isn't available as a generic yet, joining a discount club could reduce what you pay for prescription drugs dramatically," notes Beck. These discount cards are often free. Also ask if your pharmacy has any prescription reward programs. These provide the incentive for pharmacy loyalty, saving you money and ensuring repeat business for the pharmacy.
Your annual vision exam may require an updated prescription, but buying glasses or contacts from your doctor may mean paying up to 50 percent more. Instead, go online to find less expensive -- and sometimes more fashionable -- options.
Receiving medical care from a provider out-of-network can cost you much more than using someone who's in-network. Before booking an appointment, call to confirm the office's network status with your insurance company. Ensuring you only see in-network providers can become difficult in a hospital, but make sure the hospital staff knows you have a strong preference for in-network physicians.
"Be aware and take advantage of treatment at free clinics when available," advises Beck. "Particularly in urban areas, there are opportunities to treat some conditions for free, namely those that pose a risk to public health. For example, if you are concerned about a sexually transmitted infection, a visit to the city health center may involve a depressing waiting room, but the screening and treatments will be free."