Thursday, June 20, 2013

Time Warner Asks PSC to Greenlight Prime Time Evening, Friday Afternoon and Saturday Phone Shutoffs for Collection Purposes, and to Relax Other Consumer Protections

Time Warner's phone service subsidiary (Time Warner Cable Information Services (New York) LLC) filed a Petition on May 1, 2013 with the Public Service Commission, seeking "Waivers of Certain Commission Regulations Pertaining to Partial Payments, Directory Distribution, Timing for Suspension or Termination of Service, and a Partial Waiver of Service Quality Reporting Requirements." In a commendable development, Time Warner acknowledges it is now providing telephone service through its Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) technology "as a fully regulated service...." and that it is therefore subject to the Commission's telephone consumer protection regulation.

Previously, cable companies claimed their VOIP service is not telephone service but an unregulated information service.  This recognition that phone service is being provided is a welcome change long urged by the Public Utility Law Project of New York, and of benefit to the more than one million Time Warner phone customers in New York State.

Now that it is concededly a regulated telephone service provider, Time Warner is acting like other regulated phone companies, in that it immediately is seeking to relax the rules designed to protect customers.

Prime Time Evening, Friday and Saturday Shutoffs for Bill Collection Purposes.
Time Warner seeks to expand the hours when it can shut off telephone service for bill collection purposes, to include Saturdays from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Fridays from 3 PM to 9:00 PM, and Monday to Thursdays until 9:00 PM. The state regulations on the timing of  phone shutoffs are designed to protect customers at times when their ability to remedy or forestall a shutoff or seek assistance is limited.  Section 609.4(d) of the PSC telephone service regulations, informally known as the Telephone Fair Practices Act (TFPA), bar the interruption of telephone service for collection purposes on Fridays after 1 PM, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays:
(d) Suspension or termination of service--time. A telephone corporation complying with the conditions set forth in this section may suspend or terminate service to a residential customer for nonpayment of bills only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and between 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Friday, provided such day or the following day is not:
(1) a public holiday, as defined in the General Construction Law;
(2) a day on which the main business office of the telephone corporation is closed for business; or
(3) during the periods of December 23rd through December 26th and December 30th through January 2nd.
Exhibiting a fine sense of humor rarely seen in PSC filings, Time Warner says "it would like to extend these hours [when customers can be shut off] ... "for its customers' convenience."!

The purpose, however, of restricting utility shutoff times is not to mirror the times when a utility will receive payments, but to enable customers to obtain timely assistance in preventing termination or promptly restoring service.  Assistance is potentially available through the PSC, which has power exercised under TFPA to decide bill disputes, supervise and revise payment plan arrangements on terms affordable to customers, deal with situations where continued or resumed service is medically necessary, and, when appropriate, order the service to be put on.

The telephone shutoff rules initially mirrored HEFPA.  Under HEFPA, the Commission is required by statute, PSL 32,  to forbid electric and gas companies from terminating service on Fridays and weekends:
"The  commission  shall  preclude terminations for nonpayment other than between the hours of eight  a.m.  and  four  p.m.,  Monday  through Thursday,  provided  that  such day or the following day is not a public holiday....
After HEFPA was enacted by the legislature to address gas and electric service shutoffs, the Commission administratively adopted TFPA rules for telephone customers, without legislative direction.  The TFPA rules initially mirrored the HEFPA no-terminations-on-Friday rule.  Subsequently, however, the telephone companies won a relaxation of the rule to permit Friday terminations until 1 PM.  This was justified on the grounds that the Commission's Hotline service is potentially available until 7:30 PM Monday - Friday to intercede if a customer has a dispute or needs assistance in working out terms to forestall shutoff or restore service.  That purpose would be frustrated by Time Warner's proposal.

Allocation of Partial Payments
Time Warner seeks a waiver of Commission rules regarding allocation of undesignated partial payments between services, so that phone service would be paid first --"bucket 1 charges" -- and then the payments would be applied to all remaining charges -- "bucket 2" -- which could be for Time Warner services such as  internet or cable TV.  Consideration should be given instead to making it easier for customers to choose the service to which a partial payment is applied.  For example, a customer might want to jettison cable TV and keep the internet on to hunt for jobs during a spell of unemployment or other household financial crisis.  While the bills include separate items for cable TV, broadband, and telephone services, there is no information given in the bills on how customers can, if they are in arrears, keep the service they pay for with a partial payment.  Indeed, Time Warner bills have boiler plate which says that if the portions of the bill for TV or broadband are not paid, telephone service may be shut off.

Service Quality and Directories.
Time Warner seeks a waiver of service quality rules regarding the timeliness of repairs and keeping appointments, etc.  Verizon successfully won a relaxation of rules that only count incidents of deficient service to "core" customers, and Time Warner wants the same -- and more.

The PSC limited its service quality metrics and penalties to "core" customers, defined as those who have low income Lifeline reduced rate service, those with special needs (medical conditions, elderly, blind or disabled), and those who lack competitive opportunities for alternative service, who cannot deal with bad service by switching companies.  Time Warner pronounces that since it is a competitive company the rule should not apply.  This invites reexamination of the ill considered withdrawal of oversight, which occurred at a time when there was more optimism about customers having more choices of providers.  Recently, we have seen a situation where what was at most a duopoly of landline phone service providers is dwindling, due to the effort of Verizon to withdraw from the copper landline service, as is occurring on part of Fire Island.  In that situation, the only landline provider is the cable company.

Also Time Warner seeks relaxation of the rule requiring provision of directories to customers.

The Utility Law Project believes the Petition for approval of night time, Friday afternoon and Saturday telephone service terminations should be denied forthwith, in order to protect customers at risk of termination, and that the other relief requested should not be entertained until after public comments are received and further proceedings are held.  The PSC issued a SAPA notice inviting comments at page 22 of the State Register for June 19, 2013.

The 45 day public comment period expires August 3, 2013.  Public Comments can be filed electronically here.

Gerald A. Norlander

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