The gradual addition of extra fees to your cellphone bill can be a bit like gaining weight -- you don't keep close enough track of your habits, until one day you open your bill (or step on the scale), see a discouragingly high number, and experience "bill shock."
While the government may not be able to prevent the expansion of our waistlines, it's stepping in to help consumers avoid what the Federal Communications Commission describes as a "sudden and unexpected increase in monthly bills that is not caused by a change in service plans."
Thanks to an agreement reached on Monday, within a year, wireless providers will begin providing consumers advanced warning that they are nearing their usage limits and will soon begin incurring extra fees. According to The New York Times, "Companies have the option to deliver alerts by text or voice, but they must be free and automatic. Consumers can opt out of the service if they choose. At least two of the four types of alerts must be started by carriers within 12 months, and all alerts must begin within 18 months."
"The companies also agreed to publicize tools for consumers to monitor their own usage. The F.C.C. has teamed with the nonprofit Consumers Union to track companies' compliance," the newspaper continued.
Most wireless contracts -- whether for your cellphone, your iPad or another tablet device -- charge a set monthly fee for limited usage -- a certain number of phone minutes, a maximum number of text messages, and (usually) a set number of gigabytes of Internet data access. Exceed those limits, and your provider charges a hefty fee for each extra minute, text or megabyte of data you use. Those charges can quickly add up, and though most providers offer consumers a way to track their usage, most people don't monitor it. Hence, the bill shock.
It's a common problem. According to a 2010 study by the FCC, one in six mobile device users have experienced surprisingly high bills, and of those, 23% reported extra charges of at least $100. In some instances, these unexpected fees exceeded a whopping $1,000. In one case, a 66-year-old Massachusetts retiree was hit was a ludicrous $18,000 bill after the promotional plan she'd signed up for -- which included unlimited Internet access -- expired without warning.
While an $18,000 bill is extreme, it's easy to understand how bills can creep upward. Tablets like the iPad are becoming more common, increasing overall wireless usage. At the same time, as consumers grow more comfortable with mobile devices, we are using them for more things, including downloading music and books, and streaming movies and television shows, which can quickly sap your monthly data plan. It's easy to forget to check whether or not you have the minutes left to finish The Departed when Leonardo DiCaprio is starting to figure out just what's happening with the police.
Soon you won't have to: Your provider will remind you instead. In this current political environment, when the airwaves are saturated with tales of everything the federal government is doing wrong, this FCC agreement stands out as an example of the government's ability to protect consumers, each and every one of us.
To learn more about bill shock, and what you can do to prevent it, click here. Loren Berlin is a reporter with the AOL Huffington Post Media Group. She can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter at @LorenBerlin, and on Facebook.