Thursday, October 15, 2009

NY PSC Mum on FCC Telecom Consumer Information Proceeding

Back on August 27th, PULP reported that the FCC released a Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) to examine and evaluate the communication customers receive about their telephone service. Specifically, the FCC sought information as to whether consumers are being empowered and protected with the level of information they currently receive when it comes to choosing a service provider, selecting a service plan, managing use of that plan, and deciding whether (and when) to switch providers. Comments on the NOI were due this week. Several states submitted their suggestions, but the New York State Public Service Commission (“PSC”) chose to not file anything, wasting an opportunity to address serious consumer issues.

PULP participated indirectly in the FCC’s proceeding through our membership in the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates (“NASUCA”) . NASUCA wrote that
Broadly speaking, in these and other proceedings, NASUCA has consistently urged the Commission to require communications providers to give consumers timely, detailed, accurate and – most importantly – non-misleading information regarding the rates consumers pay for service, other fees and charges imposed in connection with that service, the terms and conditions that govern their service, the availability and quality of service they can expect to receive from their service provider, and any penalties or other adverse action they may experience if they terminate or modify the communications service they receive.
NASUCA urged that stronger consumer information requirements be implemented and extended to all providers – landline, wireless, and Voice of Internet Protocol (“VoIP”). In addition, NASUCA wrote:
To the extent consumers have received protection or redress from carriers' misleading, deceptive or abusive billing practices or charges, that relief has come chiefly at the state level. State utility commissions or similar agencies, state attorneys general, and state courts have generally been far more accessible to the country's consumers of communications service, and far more responsive, than the Commission. States have also generally been more nimble than the Commission in responding to evolving industry practices that are unreasonable, misleading or deceptive.
The states that submitted comments followed a similar theme: ensure that states are not preempted from protecting consumers and that all providers must fairly and accurately communicate with their customers.
For example, The District of Columbia Public Service Commission (“DC PSC”) comments stated:
The DC PSC first notes, as a general matter, that concern for the telecommunications consumer is shared between the FCC and state public service commissions, like the DC PSC. Indeed, as was noted in a Resolution adopted by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (‘NARUC’) in 2008, ‘state utility commissions have proven to be valuable partners to the Federal Communications Commission as the 'laboratories of democracy' for ensuring consumer rights in a timely manner. In addition to enforcing federal consumer protection policies, states have established their own protections and have worked with consumers directly to assure that their concerns are being met. The DC PSC agrees with NARUC that a state and federal partnership, together with uniform national standards, would give consumers throughout the Nation a clear and consistent set of enforceable consumer rights that they may not have today.”
Along the same vein, the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable (“MDTC”) stated in its comments:
The MDTC urges the FCC to expand the existing federal Truth-in-Billing rules for wireline and wireless providers to include additional consumer information disclosure rules and to adopt similar consumer protection and disclosure rules for providers of broadband, VoIP (i.e., Voice over Internet Protocol), subscription video (cable and satellite), and bundled services. Finally, the MDTC urges the FCC to permit states to enforce federally mandated consumer protection requirements; and also to supplement federal regulatory requirements, if and when the need arises and to the extent such state standards are not inconsistent with federal requirements.”
The California Public Utilities Commission comments discussed the need to expand the existing requirements to new types of providers, stating:
We propose new steps the FCC should consider to ensure that consumers can meet the challenges posed by an evolving communications marketplace. We also recommend that the FCC consider applying disclosure requirements and billing rules where traditional voice and video services are bundled with broadband Internet access and VoIP, so that consumers can comparison shop more effectively.
The Virginia State Corporations Commission comments added:
The advent of telecommunications competition, as well as advances in, and convergence of, technologies have provided consumers with many new options for their communications needs. Such options offer considerable consumer benefits; however, the number and variety of such choices also require consumers to be better informed. The VSCC Staff supports the FCC’s efforts to ensure that consumers have the necessary information to make good purchasing decisions for their communications services.
Expanding and enforcing reasonable consumer information requirements to VoIP and wireless and ensuring that the states have a strong role in enforcement are necessary changes which should come out of this proceeding. Consumers have a right to complete and accurate information about the service they are considering subscribing to, regardless of the technology used. Unfortunately, the New York PSC chose to remain on the sidelines and not let its voice be heard on behalf of the state's telecom consumers and in support of preservation of the state role in protecting them.

Lou Manuta

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