Four Democratic senators, in an unanticipated letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, urged the agency to require cable and broadband operators to provide customers more details about pricing.
Citing "huge price increases and often poor service" -- along with the "increasing concentration in the industry" -- as reasons for the commission to accelerate its scrutiny of cable operations and creation of greater transparency to consumers, Senators Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a July 9 letter asked the FCC to demand that broadband operators provide detailed information about how they establish prices using numerous criteria.
They also requested transparency for all factors of the monthly bill, including fees and terms such as user caps, modem rental fees, and advertised and actual data speeds. The letter stipulated several cost components that the FCC should be able to identify, including state-by-state and rural-vs.-urban comparisons as well as pricing by various telecommunications providers.
The senators' letter, which surfaced late Friday, seemed to be unexpected by cable lobbyists. Calls for comments -- and to find out why the senators launched their effort now -- were not returned by presstime.
American Cable Association president/CEO Matt Polka posted an online response in which he said, "Media consolidation has gotten too big and too harmful to consumers."
Polka blamed program content owners, singling out ESPN's lawsuit against Verizon FiOS.
"ESPN doesn't want choice," Polka said. "It wants all consumers to pay for the big bundle of programming and channels that no one wants but still pays ESPN and the other programming conglomerates every month."
Polka also urged the lawmakers to call Wheeler "today, and tell him to impose conditions on AT&T-DirecTV merger to protect consumers."
In their letter calling for increased industry price transparency, the senators pointed to the "de facto telecommunications monopolies" in the U.S, and noted that "just 37% of Americans had more than one option for high-speed broadband providers."
"Consumers are often unaware of the various fees that are tacked onto their monthly bills," the letter explained, citing a Time Warner Cable structure that saw the monthly cable modem rental fee go from $3.95 in 2012 to $5.99 in 2013 to $8 today, "a 203% increase in three years' time in addition to monthly broadband charges."
"At the very least, Americans should be able to understand the price of the product they are buying and what their neighbors are paying for the same service," the letter said.
In a statement accompanying the letter, Sanders said the FCC investigation "would help policymakers evaluate the impact of corporate mergers, such as a proposed deal involving Charter, Time-Warner Cable and Bright House Networks."