For a decade we’ve talked about how the broadband and cable industry has perfected the use of utterly bogus fees to jack up subscriber bills — a dash of financial creativity it adopted from the banking and airline industries. Countless cable and broadband companies tack on a myriad of completely bogus fees below the line, letting them advertise one rate — then sock you with a higher rate once your bill actually arrives. These companies will then brag repeatedly about how they haven’t raised rates yet this year, when that’s almost never actually the case.
Despite this gamesmanship occurring for the better part of two decades, nobody ever seems particularly interested in doing much about it. The government tends to see this as little more than creative marketing, and when efforts to rein in this bad behavior (which is really false advertising) do pop up, they tend to go nowhere, given this industry’s immense lobbying power.
But something quietly shifted just before the holidays. After a longstanding campaign by Consumer Reports, The Television Viewer Protection Act of 2019 passed the House and the Senate last week buried inside a giant appropriations bill that now awaits President Trump’s signature.
The bill bans ISPs from charging you extra to rent hardware you already own (something ISPs like Frontier have been doing without penalty for a few years). It also forces cable TV providers to send an itemized list of any fees and other surcharges to new customers within 24 hours of signing up for service, and allows users shocked by the higher price to cancel service without penalty.
The bill’s not perfect. Because of the act itself it largely only applies to cable TV, not broadband service where the problem is just as bad. And cable TV providers can still falsely advertise a lower rate, thanks to what appears to be some last minute lobbying magic on the part of the cable TV sector:
“Initial versions of the legislation actually had the provision as truth in advertising, so you had to advertise the entire fees,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, a Washington-based public-interest group. “But it’s still an improvement over what currently exists, because you have a right to cancel after signing up.”
The trick now will be enforcement by a government and FCC that has routinely shown it’s entirely cool with industry repeatedly ripping consumers off with bullshit fees to the tune of around $28 billion annually:
“We seriously hope the cable industry doesn’t try to game its way out of complying with a very straightforward disclosure requirement: let consumers know what they will actually pay each month once all the fees are tacked on to the advertised price,” emailed Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel with Consumer Reports, which lobbied for this bill. “And we hope cable operators can do so well before the six month enactment date, and not ask the FCC for an extension for doing something so simple.”