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Watchdog spanks FCC over US wireless

Customer complaint confusion

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The US "congressional watchdog" agency has taken the Federal Communications Commission to task for mishandling its duty to provide oversight of wireless phone service.

In a 71-page report (PDF) entitled, rather directly, "FCC Needs to Improve Oversight of Wireless Phone Service," the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) spanks the FCC for its sloppy handling of customer complaints.

The GAO's survey of 1,143 wireless phone users found that between 9 and 14 per cent of them were "very or somewhat dissatisfied" with their wireless providers' billing practices, service-contract terms, point-of-sale service explanations, call quality, or customer service.

But that's not why the GAO is miffed with the FCC. What frosts the watchdogs is the FCC's lack of wireless-provider oversight and its lackadaisical attitude toward soliciting, managing, and tracking customer complaints. "It is not clear to consumers what they can expect from FCC’s complaint process," the report states.

The FCC "has conducted little...oversight of services provided by wireless phone service carriers because the agency has focused on promoting competition," the report reads. The FCC, according to the GAO, "lacks goals and measures that clearly identify the intended outcomes of its complaint processing efforts" and "cannot demonstrate the effectiveness of its efforts to process complaints."

The report concludes that the "FCC's processing of consumers’ informal complaints may be an important means for dissatisfied consumers to get help, but as long as FCC lacks clear outcome-related goals and measures for this process, consumers do not know what they can expect from it, and FCC cannot demonstrate its effectiveness in assisting consumers who need help."

The GAO also notes that a sizable minority of wireless phone customers don't know how to get the FCC help when they're having problems with their carrier. "Specifically, based on the results of our consumer survey," the report reads, "we estimate that 13 percent of adult wireless phone users would complain to FCC if they had a problem that their carrier did not resolve and that 34 percent do not know where they could complain."

The report also goes into great detail about how the FCC has failed to explain its guidelines to state regulatory agencies, saying: "Representatives of state utility commissions...told us that states' authority under federal law to regulate wireless phone service is unclear, and this lack of clarity has, in some cases, led to costly legal proceedings and some states' reluctance to provide oversight."

That confusion is not merely because the FCC hasn't made itself clear. It's also because they're not trying hard enough. "Communication between [state] commissions and FCC regarding oversight of wireless phone service is infrequent," says the report.

In addition to pointing out the FCC's flaws, the report makes five specific recommendations about what the Commission should do to improve its service and outreach:

  • Clearly inform consumers that they can complain to FCC about problems with their wireless phone service
  • Develop goals for complaint-handing efforts that clearly explain intended outcomes of the complaint-resolution process
  • Develop and implement policies and procedures for documenting and analyzing complaints to determine whether carriers are complying with existing rules or whether new consumer-protection rules are needed
  • Develop guidelines to delineate federal and state authority to regulate wireless phone service
  • Develop and implement policies and procedures for communicating with states about wireless phone service oversight

The report includes the FCC's six-page response to these recommendations, which might best be summarized as "We're trying, we're trying."

But according to the self-described "objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, and balanced" GAO, the FCC still has its explanatory work cut out for it. ®

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