Senate Democrats Single Out Comcast for Equipment Overcharges in Letter to FCC

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Six senators, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, are fed up with Internet and cable TV companies hitting consumers with equipment fees, and they’re asking the Federal Communications Commission what it can do about it.

In a Feb. 3 letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.), Al Franken (Minn.), Edward Markey (Mass.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), along with Sanders (I-Vt.), called out Comcast Corp. in particular for charging modem rental fees to customers who own their own device or had returned them.

Wyden, who is spearheading the effort, isn’t seeking regulatory action now, just information to determine the scope of the problem, a Wyden spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA.

The lawmakers estimated the cable TV and Internet giant made an estimated $275 to $300 million per quarter from such fees alone.

“Equipment rental charges are one of the numerous and often obtuse fees consumers face in this increasingly concentrated cable and broadband market,” the lawmakers said. The letter asks for details on any consumer complaint records the FCC might have on incorrect billing practices as well as whether the agency regulates erroneous equipment fees. 

The FCC has not previously taken any enforcement actions related to the types of charges described in the letter, an FCC spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA by e-mail.

A Comcast spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA that the company is working to improve its customer service. 

“Acknowledging some of our issues with customer service, we have undertaken a substantial. [sic] multi-year effort to reinvent the customer experience, including improving billing systems, reliability, and all of our interactions with our customers,” Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s vice president of government communications, told Bloomberg BNA in an email. “We are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in this effort and are working hard to improve and we won’t stop until we have made the changes necessary.” 

More than 30 percent of consumer complaints to the FCC concern Internet services, and 38 percent of TV service complaints concern billing practices, according to FCC statistics.

“We take every FCC complaint seriously, and respond to each one on an individualized basis. We are also using the information from complaints in our ongoing efforts to improve the overall customer experience,” Fitzmaurice said.

UPDATE: Adds comment from Comcast and the FCC.