Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Utility Law Project Opposes Time Warner Petitions for Waiver of Consumer Protection Rules on Telephone Shutoffs, Billing Practices, Customer Service Standards

On August 1, 2013 the Public Utility Law Project of New York, Inc. filed comments opposing the petition of Time Warner Cable Information Systems (Time Warner) for waivers of New  York State Public Service Commission rules limiting the days and times when telephone service can be shut off for bill collection purposes, billing and collection rules that require separation and selective service blocking when customers in arrears make partial payments, service quality standards for repair service, and directory issuance.  See PULP Network, Time Warner Asks PSC to Greenlight Prime Time Evening, Friday Afternoon and Saturday Phone Shutoffs for Collection Purposes, and to Relax Other Consumer Protections, June 20, 2013.

The Utility Law Project argues that the Commission should not further "streamline" enforcement of its telephone consumer protection rules, as it has been doing for more than fifteen years of "price cap" or "performance regulation" in the name of promoting deregulation and competition. The performance standards do not measure effectiveness of telephone companies in providing discounted Linkup and Lifeline service to low income customers, and do not measure the number of interruptions of service for bill collection purposes, or the effecitiveness of companies in working with customers to arrive at deferred payment plans to help continue service during periods of temporary household financial difficulties.

In exhibits attached to its comments, the Project pointed out that during this era of deregulation or regulatory forbearance, according to FCC statistics New York household telephone subscribership,  which once was above the national average, has sunk to the point that it is not only below the national average but is now fourth lowest of the 50 states.

The Utility Law Project asks for further proceedings to investigate and correct Time Warner's billing and collection practices, which do not give customers in arrears information about how a partial payment can be designated to preserve a priority service while others may be selectively blocked due to arrears, and the means to designate the payment on payment forms.  Also, Time Warner notifies customers on their bills that nonpayment of charges for cable TV or broadband service may result in shutoff of telephone service, without providing information about how telephone service or other services may be selectively preserved if a customer cannot afford full payment.

The Utility Law Project opposed the requested waiver of service repair quality standards.  Time Warner seeks to limit applicability of repair timeliness to its customers who are "core" customers, and does not include in the proposed definition of "core" those who may lack other landline options.   The Project argues that the existence of competition does not mean basic service standards can be jettisoned, and that there is no real landline competition, because telephone markets in New York are at best a duopoly between the local phone companies and the local cable company, and in some situations still a virtual monopoly.

The Utility Law Project initiated discovery to learn more about Time Warner's proposals, which, if granted, may vitiate the performance regulation standards. See PULP Asks for More Information from Time Warner Regarding its Petition to Relax PSC Regulations on Snips and Allocation Priority of Part Payments,  July 25, 2013.

Papers filed and an opportunity to make online comments are available at the PSC online case file for Case 13-C-0193.
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