Consumer Protections, Service Quality, and Reliability

Background

Telecommunications and utility services are essential to health, safety, and economic welfare. These services must be reliable, safe, and affordable. Customers should expect high standards of customer service and consumer protections.

Service quality and consumer protection regulations help protect consumers. Challenges include inadequate service, fraud, misrepresentations, unfair trade, and deceptive advertisements and practices.

The adoption of minimum standards gives providers clear service objectives. Standards also improve provider accountability. And they allow consumers to compare providers more easily so they can make the best choice.

Reliable and resilient infrastructure is also necessary to support utilities and telecommunications. Natural disasters frequently leave many without power for days or even weeks. Without electricity, consumers can also lose access to communications and water service.

Severe weather emergencies are not the only challenges. Consumers can lose access to utilities for other reasons. This can include an old and failing infrastructure system. For example, phone service may be of poor quality. And a growing number of communities do not have access to a safe water supply. Some consumers face utility cutoffs because they cannot afford to pay off their bills. Payment plans can help them maintain service as they pay off their utility debt The amount of money owed by the government, which is the accumulation of all prior annual deficits. .

CONSUMER PROTECTIONS, SERVICE QUALITY, AND RELIABILITY: Policy

CONSUMER PROTECTIONS, SERVICE QUALITY, AND RELIABILITY: Policy

Consumer protections

Policymakers should adopt minimum service standards and consumer protections to ensure fair terms and conditions. They should prohibit unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices. These include unfair early termination penalties and misleading marketing practices. They should conduct robust oversight and enforcement. This includes regularly compiling and reporting on complaints and other key data about essential services.

Companies should be required to obtain recorded consent before switching service providers or adding services. Consumers should not have to pay for unwanted services. Regulators should impose substantial penalties on companies that engage in slamming The illegal practice of switching a consumer's traditional wireline telephone company for local, local toll, or long distance service without permission.  (switching a customer to a new provider without authorization), cramming The illegal practice of placing unauthorized, misleading, or deceptive charges on a consumer's telephone bill. Crammers rely on confusing telephone bills in an attempt to trick consumers into paying for services they did not authorize or receive, or that cost more than the consumer was… (adding services to an account without authorization), and other deceptive marketing practices.

Bills and notices should be complete, accurate, and understandable. They should provide full and clear descriptions of all charges. Providers should be prohibited from including separate line-item billing charges that are not expressly mandated by law. Consumers should have the right to receive paper copies of bills and notices.

Policymakers should establish rights and protections for customers who face possible termination of service. Consumers must have access to water, electricity, and natural gas services when weather conditions threaten health and safety. Providers should be prohibited from disconnecting service, or refusing to connect service, when such conditions exist. Providers should also offer affordable repayment plans and arrearage forgiveness programs.

Consumers should have timely and consumer-friendly access to redress for billing disputes and other problems. Consumers should have the option to have an independent state agency resolve disputes fairly and effectively (see also Pre-Dispute Mandatory Binding Arbitration).

Policymakers should create uniform reporting standards for collections data on past-due accounts to allow for meaningful nationwide comparisons and analysis.

These consumer protections should apply regardless of the platform technology used to deliver the service. This is necessary to ensure that all consumers have a choice of options that provide a minimum level of high-quality and affordable service.

Network reliability and resiliency

Policymakers should ensure network reliability and resiliency for utility and telecommunications services.

Policymakers should adopt specific and enforceable reliability standards. Utilities should be subject to reporting requirements for routine maintenance and other widespread outages. Oversight bodies should publish monthly service-quality data and reports on penalties.

In doing so, policymakers should:

  • establish clear network-reliability metrics and standards, monitor and report on service-provider performance, and enforce sanctions and remedial actions if performance falls short;
  • ensure that communications networks function reliably and consistently during favorable weather conditions and emergencies regardless of whether the telecommunications provider offers services over wireless, copper, fiber-optic, or some other technology;
  • adopt specific standards for major storms and widespread outages and require timely reporting and review of the response to major storms;
  • establish protocols for minimizing outages and restoring service after outages that prioritize hospitals, long-term care facilities, and other residences and facilities that serve older adults, people with disabilities, or both (see also Disaster Planning and Recovery, and Quality, Consumer Rights and Emergency Preparedness in All Long-Term Services and Supports Settings);
  • prohibit telecommunications carriers from permanently replacing networks that have been damaged in a storm or other disaster with technologies that produce lesser levels of service than were provided prior to the disaster; and
  • increase appropriated funds for research, development, and demonstration of technologies that will improve the reliability and security of transmission systems.