Georgia Watch urges lawmakers to protect phone customers in HB 168

Georgia Watch, the state’s leading consumer watchdog, is urging the state legislature to preserve the ability of the Public Service Commission (PSC or Commission) to help customers resolve complaints against their telephone service provider. The current version of House Bill 168 would do away with the PSC’s ability to act on behalf of customers who have complaints about their telephone service and billing.

“This bill will leave thousands of Georgians who are AT&T customers no recourse and nowhere to turn for help,” said Angela Speir Phelps, executive director of Georgia Watch. “A customer can file a complaint and the Commission can ‘receive’ it – but without the authority to resolve it – the company can say ‘go jump’ and that’s that – and that’s not good for consumers.”

A provision in section 6 of the bill (proposed OCGA 46-5-251(b)(2)) would remove the enforcement authority that the PSC currently has in regards to consumer phone complaints. Instead of being able to resolve complaints, the PSC would only be able to “receive” complaints. HB 168 is a comprehensive bill that makes sweeping changes to the UAF (Universal Access Fund) and mandates changes to what small local telephone companies can charge AT&T.

According to the PSC, in calendar year 2009, the Commission assisted AT&T customers with complaints resulting in $145,650.18 of credits or refunds.  This amount is almost half of the total amount of credits and refunds the Commission helped consumers to secure across all utilities, including natural gas, electric, and telecom, thus highlighting the importance of the Commission retaining its ability to resolve telecommunications complaints.  If HB 168 were to pass in its current form, the Commission would no longer have the authority to help phone customers who have billing or service issues to be issued credits or refunds when appropriate and also would lose any leverage to order the phone companies to resolve a customer’s non-credit/refund-related complaint.

“This legislation is being pushed by AT&T, so it makes sense that they want to tie the hands of regulators,” said Danny Orrock, deputy director of Georgia Watch. “But it doesn’t make sense to leave consumers out in the cold when they have been wronged by their phone company.”

HB 168 has been passed by both the House and Senate, but the different versions of the legislation must be reconciled before the bill can go to the Governor for signature. It is currently awaiting Senate action.