Consumers expect and deserve reliable, safe, and affordable telecommunications and utility service. It is essential to health, safety, and economic welfare. But it is not always delivered. Customer service quality and consumer-protection regulations help protect consumers. Challenges include inadequate service, fraud, misrepresentations, unfair trade, and deceptive advertisements and practices. Our society also depends on reliable and resilient infrastructure for utilities and telecommunications . Damage from natural disasters frequently leaves many without power for days or even weeks. Without electricity, consumers can also lose access to communications and water service. Even without severe weather emergencies, in many areas, consumers can lose access to power, or they struggle with unreliable or poor-quality phone service. The adoption of minimum standards gives providers clear service objectives. Standards also establish guarantees for which they can be held accountable. And consumers can compare providers more fairly.
CONSUMER PROTECTIONS, SERVICE QUALITY, AND RELIABILITY: Policy
High quality service for all
Policymakers should ensure consumers have access to reliable, safe, and high-quality utility and telecommunications services. Services should be offered at just and reasonable rates. Fair terms and conditions, as well as minimum service standard protections, must be included.
Policymakers should also:
- ensure that consumers have a timely and consumer-friendly means of redress for billing, disputes and other problems with their telecommunications or utility service;
- establish rights and protections for consumers who face termination of service;
- ensure access to complaint history and other key data to evaluate providers;
- provide complete, accurate, and understandable bills, including full and clear descriptions of all charges listed and the service provider responsible for each charge;
- regularly compile and report the complaints they receive about essential utility and telecommunications services; and
- prohibit utilities from disconnecting or refusing to reconnect electric or natural gas service to households with low incomes when weather conditions threaten health or safety.
Ensuring consumer protections in utilities
Policymakers should prohibit unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices. These include unfair early termination penalties and misleading marketing practices.
Unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices also include mandatory binding arbitration (see also Chapter 12, Personal and Legal Rights—Pre-Dispute Mandatory Binding Arbitration), separate line-item billing charges not expressly mandated by law, slamming (switching a customer to a competing provider without authorization), and cramming (adding services to an account without approval).
Policymakers should also:
- require service providers to obtain clear, verifiable, and recorded authorization before changing any consumer’s telecommunications, natural gas, or electricity provider;
- impose substantial penalties on companies that engage in slamming, cramming, and other deceptive marketing practices;
- ensure that consumers who have been slammed or crammed do not have to pay for any resulting charges and receive full refunds on any payments for unwanted services;
- monitor, including through audits, sales and marketing practices to detect and deter misleading practices; and
- ensure that any utility provider that issues its customers an electronic bill also provides customers, upon their request, a free paper copy of the customer’s regular bill each billing cycle.
Policymakers should create uniform reporting standards for collections data on past due accounts. Doing so would require regular, comprehensive compilation of uniform billing and arrearage data for residential customers. Such standards and measures do not exist at present. A minority of states gather some collections data, but they are not uniform in how they compile the data. As a result, the data that are available cannot easily be aggregated, and state-by-state information is too incomplete to allow meaningful nationwide comparisons and analysis.
Ensuring network reliability and resiliency
Policymakers should ensure network reliability and resiliency for utility and telecommunications services.
Policymakers should adopt specific and enforceable reliability standards and reporting requirements for routine maintenance and other widespread outages. They should also 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;
- adopt specific standards for major storms and widespread outages and require timely reporting and review of the response to major storms;
- 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;
- ensure that incumbent telecommunications carriers comply with the Federal Communication Commission’s 2016 rules regarding any proposed retirement of the copper network and any proposed discontinuance, reduction, or impairment of service; and
- increase appropriated funds for research, development, and demonstration of technologies that will improve the reliability and security of our transmission systems.