Thursday, October 17, 2013

PSC Denies Time Warner Petition to Expand Times when Phone Service May be Interrupted for Bill Collection Purposes

At its October 17, 2013 session, the New York State Public Service Commission denied the Petition of Time Warner Cable Information Services, LLC, to enlarge the times when phone service can be interrupted for bill collection purposes.  The Public Utility Law Project of New York, Inc. filed initial comments in the case generally opposing most of the relief sought by Time Warner in its petition, and supplemental comments.

Time Warner asked the Commission in Case 13-C- 0193 to expand shutoff times to include Saturdays and evenings until 9 PM.  This required waiver of the Commission's Telephone Fair Practices Act Regulations, which limit the days and times when phone service can be shut off.  According to the Commission Press Release,
“We are saying ‘no’ to Time Warner’s request to waive our rules regarding when it would be authorized for suspensions and terminations of its telephone customers,” said Commission Chair Audrey Zibelman. “The Commission’s rules applicable to Time Warner are consistent with the hours of operation of the Commission’s consumer call center which receives consumer complaints’ and requests for assistance. To ensure telephone consumers’ rights are protected, especially core customers such as the elderly and disabled, it is essential customers are afforded the opportunity to contact our call center if their telephone service is threatened with a potential suspension or termination.” 
Time Warner also sought a waiver of Commission regulations requiring service repair quality reports, arguing that competition and the ability of customers to switch telephone service providers now makes reporting of service repair time and other data unnecessary.  The Utility Law Project pointed out in its comments that the ability to switch providers is not an adequate substitute for enforcement of minimum service quality standards, and that even if one believes real competition makes service quality regulation unnecessary, phone service is oligopolistic and not truly competitive.

The Commission Press Release indicates PSC acceptance of Time Warner's argument:
Finally, the Commission conditionally granted Time Warner’s request for a waiver of its monthly service quality reporting requirements because, in Time Warner’s case, the need for regulatory action to ensure timely repairs for voice service has diminished due to the prevalence of competitive alternatives and the ability of residential and business customers to move to a different service provider. 
The Commission did require six months of reporting to establish a baseline of service quality data for future reference and comparison, and the Press Release indicates that "[i]f the data meets Commission staff approval, the company’s request for a waiver of certain service quality 
reporting requirements may take effect."  Thus, the Commission appears to have delegated to its staff, which has generally favored deregulation, the final say whether there will be meaningful enforcement of minimum service quality standards for Time Warner's home phone customers.

The Commission also granted Time Warner's request to limit distribution of residential white page directories to those customers who request them, and to waive Commission rules regarding allocation of undesignated partial payments from customers facing disconnection among various services, such as phone, broadband, and cable TV. Time Warner was allowed to have a "two bucket" system in which undesignated payments are allocated first to preserve phone service, and then to a second bucket of charges for all other services.  As a consequence Time Warner may be able to block customers from receiving phone plus cable tv or phone plus broadband services unless outstanding charges for both cable tv and broadband are paid.  The Commission rules that were waived generally allowed customers to choose which service they wish to preserve with partial payments and allow blocking of only unpaid services.

An order will be issued later explaining the Commission's reasoning.

Prior posts:

New York PSC to Consider Impact of Changing Technology on Phone Consumer Protection, 10/15/2013

Utility Law Project Opposes Time Warner Petitions for Waiver of Consumer Protection Rules on Telephone Shutoffs, Billing Practices, Customer Service Standards, 8/6/2013

Gerald A. Norlander

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