Adam Savage’s data-roaming & billing disaster

You’ve probably heard about the $11,000 bill Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame) got from AT&T after taking his mobile broadband card to Canada.  AT&T alleges he racked up 9 GB of data traffic while in Canada and proceeded to bill him at 1.5 (or .015, seeing as how their rep didn’t know the difference) cents per kilobyte.  Somehow, that comes out to $11,000, except, it doesn’t.  The data alone is either $135,000 (1.5 cents per kilobyte at 9 million KB) or $1,350 (.015 cents per kilobyte).  $11,000 is not an option there.  Maybe they meant .15 cents per kilobyte?  That’d make $13,500, which is at least in the ballpark.  Regardless, it’s an insane bill, but this math does not add up.

I bring this up not because the rate is insane (it is), but because there have been a few different takes on this story.  One that that made me think was from Leo Laporte (the Tech Guy, formerly of Tech TV who now has his own radio show/podcast).  I like Leo, but basically his take is that though the rates are crazy, Adam needs to come clean & say that he really did use 9GB of traffic.  (Adam claims that it was just a few hours of surfing).  Now, it’s possible that Adam really was downloading several movies (as in, 9+), or that he was there for quite a long time, or that his machine is (unknowingly) part of some botnet.  Casual surfing does not add up to 9GB, even over several days.  However, given that AT&T can’t seem to do math (see previous analysis), I don’t think it’s reasonable to give AT&T the benefit of the doubt about Adam’s bill.

As we go forward to the metered-Internet future (or at least, attempts thereof), can we actually trust the accounting of the telcos?  I’ve been hit with mysterious bills before from PacBell (allegedly I called Germany for 10 hours in one month, which was patently ridiculous), and the willingness of these folks to back down from huge bills suggests, to me, that they aren’t all that confident of their billing accounting.  Part of it also is probably that they know how ridiculous their rates are, but you don’t just walk away from $11,000 if you believe you really have provided $11,000 worth of service.  (Yeah yeah, cost of bad PR versus getting the money back, I get that).  Where is AT&T’s statement about Adam’s usage (not privacy-violating details, but just a bland “this is how we make sure our billing is accurate” type statement) that would assure the rest of us that we aren’t getting screwed?

It seems to me that there needs to be regulation in the presentation of bills to customers (especially when you can rack up $11k in one month!) to standardize these things, and there needs to be industry-wide regulation to ensure that the bills presented to customers are accurate.  This means penalties when the bills aren’t accurate.  (If I don’t pay my bills on time my credit gets damaged — what are the consequences for firms that issue erroneous bills?)  For example, when Comcast incorrectly billed me for three months after screwing up the bill-coding when I took back their DVR, there should be some consequence for them.  As it is, quasi-monopolies (granted by local franchising boards) and multi-year contracts (and penalties) effectively hold the customer hostage and separate these businesses from any market-driven consequences.  In the absence of those, I think regulation is a good idea here.

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