Leveling the Field in California

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Cable operators that expand into the telephone business will find themselves on a more defined playing field in California, if the state Public Utilities Commission passes a proposed telecommunications-customer bill of rights.

The plan would give consumers access to more clear and complete information about the rates, rules and regulations of their providers, according to the measure proposed by Commissioner Carl Woods.

The proposal would reduce current liability limitations, providing for large financial penalties for poor service.

For cable-telephony providers, the document's key point might be the language that bars incumbents from using consumer information in an anti-competitive fashion. Cable lobbyists frequently seek such language in legislation in an effort to prevent the dominant carriers — in California's case, SBC Communications Inc.'s Pacific Bell and Verizon Communications — from using databases to promote the businesses of their affiliates at the expense of competitors.

The bill of rights should have the greatest effect on incumbents. A separate report by the PUC indicated that, as of mid-2001, competitors still serve 418,000 residential lines, about 12 percent of the California market. The most aggressive cable operator in the telephone business in the state is Cox Communications Inc.

According to the proposal, once a provider hits $10 million a year in revenue, it must develop a Web site that posts all of its tariffs and charges. Service providers must tell customers that they have a choice of providers, and the right to receive bills that are comprehensible and legible — and printed in at least 10-point type — according to the measure.

The proposal will offer more specific protections against "slamming," in which a consumer finds that their account has been switched to a new provider against their will.

Currently, state law dictates how long a bill must go unpaid before a video provider can disconnect service. This provision sets the disconnect window at 22 days past the payment due date, and specifies that a subscriber must be notified in writing before service is terminated. Telephone providers must also resolve any billing challenges in 30 days or less, according to the state proposal.

The consumer bill of rights represents another step toward consumer protection by California PUC. The agency also recently gave notice that it intends to assume regulatory authority over digital-subscriber line service. Operators are waiting to see if cable modems are included in that oversight plan.

The PUC is taking comments on the proposed bill of rights and may vote on it in August, according to the agency.