Cell phone complaints concern officials

Posted July 06, 2009, at 8:06 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Public Advocate Richard Davies says his office gets a lot of complaints about cell phone companies, but unlike the case with land-line phone service complaints, state agencies can do little to help.

“The only role my office and the Public Utilities Commission can play is as commentators on activities that are going on at the FCC [Federal Communications Commission],” Davies said. “We can intervene if we want to, but frankly we don’t have the resources to do that.”

Davies is among those who believe the states should have a greater role in protecting consumers, particularly with the latest estimates that nearly one in five U.S. households now rely on a cell phone as the only phone service.

“We can certainly do some of the things currently done by the federal government, do them better and more quickly and more sensitively to the needs of both the companies themselves and to the customers of those companies,” he said.

In Maine, as a result of a settlement with various state attorneys general, Cingular, Verizon and Sprint have agreed to provide detailed coverage maps, clearly stated contract terms, and a term of at least 14 days as a grace period for cancellation of a wireless contract.

“There is a concern about the level of consumer protection,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees the FCC. “We certainly have had our share of complaints at my office.”

She said the Commerce Committee recently held a hearing on the issue on consumer complaints and questioned representatives of the major cell phone companies on their billing practices and handling of complaints, and about their commitment to serving all Americans.

“There has been a sort of communications divide when it comes to the use of mobile phones, for example in rural areas,” Snowe said. “We know we have many dead zones here in the state.”

In testimony last month, cell phone company executives argued competition is the best regulation. Randal Milch, a vice president at Verizon, told the committee that consumers have given the company high ratings as it has changed policies to reflect customer concerns.

“In November 2006, we replaced the flat early termination fee we charged customers who cancel their service contract early with a declining balance fee that gets smaller every month a customer stays with us,” he said. “We’ve invested many billions of dollars to give our customers what they want and demand.”

But Snowe said if the cell companies do not do a better job in providing universal access and protecting consumers, Congress may act to direct the FCC to make changes including involving the states in helping consumers.

Snowe said the FCC may take further action on its own, with new members being confirmed by the Senate in June and two more nominations pending. With the change in administration, the majority of the five-member commission will now be Democrats.

Davies said there are some indications in the public statements of the new FCC commissioners and nominees that there may be a willingness to work with the states.

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