Telecom Reporting Rule May Be Eased

FCC Chair Kevin Martin says the rule would level the playing field.
FCC Chair Kevin Martin says the rule would level the playing field. (Manuel Balce Ceneta - AP)
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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

Phone giants AT&T, Verizon Communications and Qwest today are expected to win approval to report less information to the Federal Communications Commission on such matters as consumer complaints and infrastructure investments.

A decision by the FCC to curtail the information may, however, open the gates for a broader review of data collected by the commission and could be expanded to include cable, satellite and wireless phone providers that are not currently required to submit similar reports.

The reports offer rich details into the number of consumer complaints, waiting times for repairs and money put into technological upgrades by the largest phone service providers.

As consumers rely more on technology -- spending $150 to $200 a month per household on Internet, phone and television services -- consumer groups say the reports are often the only source for detailed data that show how the providers are responding to service complaints and whether companies are investing enough in upgrading their networks.

"These companies are the carriers of last resort because they have the backbone networks, and if you get rid of the standards, then standards almost inevitably get lower," said David Bergmann, head of telecommunications for the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates.

Specifically, the FCC is expected to approve a petition by AT&T as part of an order that would include a proposal to revamp the current rule on the annual reports, according to sources at the commission who spoke on condition of anonymity because the vote is pending. AT&T's petition, filed June 2007, was followed by similar requests from Verizon and Qwest.

The FCC was expected to reject a request in the AT&T petition that seeks to free the company from providing information on the number of business phone line subscribers it has, data that can be useful for determining other rules on competition, officials at the agency said. The company would have to collect and file its annual report until the end of 2009 -- a timetable that would allow the agency to review new rulemaking.

"We need to update this for a level playing field with the marketplace of today," said FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who said he would back the order today. "On quality of service, for example, if that data is relevant for one carrier, then it should be relevant for all platforms."

The rule was created in 1990, when telephone companies had a monopoly over specific regions and most homes did not subscribe to wireless phone service and digital cable. Since then, the competitive landscape in telecommunications has become more complex, with cable operators offering phone service and phone companies offering digital television and Internet over fiber-optic networks.

Consumer groups and smaller competitors yesterday criticized the pending order, saying the data sent to the FCC holds the biggest phone operators accountable for quality and service problems while also giving smaller providers key information about the larger companies' network investments. By granting the petition and uncertainty about a review of data requirements, they said the larger phone companies may benefit over smaller carriers.

The phone companies argue that the reports offer redundant or unnecessary data. For example, AT&T said its data on consumer complaints come from information provided by the FCC.

The company also said the current rule is unfair if new competitors in other industries aren't subject to the same requirements.

"Our petition seeks to update the FCC's data-collection methods," AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said. "Under our petition, only necessary data will continue to be retained, but the inefficient and incomplete reporting of them will not."

Last year AT&T said it received 2.2 residential complaints per 100 phone lines per month; Verizon received 2.1 complaints per 100 lines per month; and Qwest received 1.3 complaints. AT&T reported that 12 percent of its subscribers who filed trouble reports, filed more than once. For Verizon, it was 17 percent.

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