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'Deeply Concerned': Worries Mount That FCC Rule Change Would Force Consumers to Pay $225 to File Complaints Against Telecoms

"At a time when consumers are highly dissatisfied with their communications companies, this abrupt change in policy troubles us."

Pai

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has been widely criticized for moving forward with rollbacks of regulations aimed at protecting local media. (Photo: FCC/Flickr)

Under a proposal that the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is slated to finalize Thursday, two House Democrats are "deeply concerned" that consumers would have to pay a $225 fee to get agency staff's help resolving complaints about communications companies' shady business practices.

In a letter (pdf) sent to Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday, Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone (N.J.) and Mike Doyle (Penn.), high-ranking members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, expressed concern that the proposal "would eliminate the agency's traditional rule of helping consumers in the informal complaint process" by directing staff "to simply pass consumers' informal complaints on to the company."

"Historically, FCC staff has reviewed responses to informal complaints and, where merited, urged companies to address any service problems," wrote the congressmen. "We have all heard countless stories of consumers complaining to the FCC about waiting months to have an erroneous charge removed from their bill or for a refund for a service they never ordered or about accessibility services that are not working. Oftentimes these issues are corrected for consumers as a result of the FCC's advocacy on their behalf."

Pallone and Doyle worry that if the proposal passes, as Gizmodo put it, "customers will either be at the mercy of their service providers—which are hated by consumers specifically because of their terrible customer service—or pony up $225" to file a formal complaint. Although, as The Verge noted, "the fee for a formal complaint isn't new," the lawmakers believe the optional and "complicated formal legal process" soon could be the only way to get help from agency staff.

"Too often, consumers wronged by communications companies face unending corporate bureaucracy insetad of quick, meaningful resolutions," the letter concluded. "At a time when consumers are highly dissatisfied with their communications companies, this abrupt change in policy troubles us."

An FCC fact sheet claims (pdf) the proposal "streamlines and consolidates procedural rules governing formal complaints," and that "wording revisions" to the two sections that address informal complaints "do not alter the substance of the rule."

"The item would not change the commission's handling of informal complaints," an agency spokesperson told CNET and The Verge. "The Democrats' letter is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the draft order."

While FCC Chief of Staff Matthew Berry turned to Twitter to dismiss The Verge—which updated its story with the FCC comment—and Gizmodo's reports as "fake news," and shared the current consumer guide (pdf) for filing an informal complaint, Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism review responded:

Doyle, for his part, reiterated his worries about the proposal on Wednesday morning:

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