The Federal Communications Commission today voted 3-1 to stop reviewing informal consumer complaints about telecom companies. To get an FCC review of a company’s bad behavior, a consumer will have to file a formal complaint—which requires a payment of $225 to the FCC.
Even if an ISP fails to respond to a customer’s informal complaint, the FCC would not review the complaint until after a consumer pays $225 and goes through the formal complaint process.
While the text of the FCC’s rule about informal complaints was changed, commissioners disagreed on whether this will result in a real change in commission policy. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argues that the rule change merely codifies the commission’s existing practices. At Pai’s urging, an FCC Enforcement Bureau staff member supported Pai’s contention during today’s meeting.
“Nothing is substantively changing in the way that the FCC handles informal complaints,” Pai said. “We’re simply codifying the practices that have been in place since 1986.” The formal complaint process and $225 fee pre-date Pai’s chairmanship.
Change “cuts FCC out” of process, Democrat says
But the decision was panned by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the commission’s only Democrat, who said the FCC has reviewed informal complaints in the past.
“This is bonkers,” she said at today’s meeting. “No one should be asked to pay $225 for this agency to do its job. No one should see this agency close its doors to everyday consumers looking for assistance in a marketplace that can be bewildering to navigate. There are so many people who think Washington is not listening to them and that the rules at agencies like this one are rigged against them—and today’s decision only proves that point.”
Rosenworcel disputed the chair’s claim that the commission’s existing practices aren’t changing. The FCC receives 25,000 to 30,000 informal complaints a month, she said.
“After they are filed, the agency studies the complaint, determines what happened, and then works with providers to fix consumer problems,” Rosenworcel said. “For decades, this has been the longstanding practice of this agency. But for reasons I do not understand, today’s order cuts the FCC out of the process. Instead of working to fix problems, the agency reduces itself to merely a conduit for the exchange of letters between consumers and their carriers. Then, following the exchange of letters, consumers who remain unsatisfied will be asked to pay a $225 fee to file a formal complaint just to have the FCC take an interest.”
The formal complaint process is not only expensive, it’s also complicated. It requires a court-like proceeding, and “Parties filing formal complaints usually are represented by lawyers or experts in communications law and the FCC’s procedural rules,” the FCC says.
For informal complaints, the FCC website says that FCC consumer representatives may contact you “if more information is necessary to complete your complaint.” If a consumer is not satisfied by a carrier’s response and offers a rebuttal, “the FCC will review your information and determine if it is sufficient to send to the provider triggering a new obligation to respond,” the page says.
On another FCC webpage, the commission says that “The FCC cannot resolve all individual complaints, but we can provide information about your possible next steps.” The FCC consumer complaint center says that it doesn’t resolve complaints about “loud commercials, the Do Not Call List, robocalls, unwanted telephone calls, unsolicited faxes and similar issues covered by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act,” but it doesn’t rule out the possibility of resolving other complaints, such as those about billing and service errors.
If Pai’s statements are accurate, that process won’t change.
Pai dropped plan, then brought it back
Today’s vote occurred despite uncertainty over whether Pai would press forward with the plan.
Yesterday, Pai’s office insisted that the rule change wouldn’t result in any real change to FCC procedures for reviewing complaints. Then, last night, reported that the FCC decided to drop the change to its informal complaint rule after facing backlash from Democrats.
But Pai changed course again Thursday morning, despite Rosenworcel’s objections, and the commission went back to its original plan to change the rule.
How the rule was changed
When consumers file informal complaints against broadband, TV, or phone companies the telecom providers are required to respond to them within 30 days. Previously, the FCC complaints rule included two references to the commission’s review and “disposition” of each informal complaint. But today’s FCC vote deleted that language.
Our story yesterday detailed the language change:
Even if the telecom provider fails to reply to an informal complaint, the only recourse would be filing a formal one. “[T]he Commission will notify the complainant that if the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response, or if the carrier has failed to submit a response by the due date, the complainant may file a formal complaint,” the proposed version of the FCC complaint rule says. By contrast, the current version of the rule says that “the Commission will contact the complainant regarding its review and disposition of the matters raised. If the complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response and the Commission’s disposition, it may file a formal complaint.”
Pai said that the rule change doesn’t impede the commission’s ability to take enforcement actions against telecoms based on informal complaints, but he didn’t say how often the commission does that.
The change to informal complaints came as part of a larger rulemaking aimed at “streamlining” the formal complaint process. The commission’s press release said that “The new rules make no changes to existing, long-standing procedures for handling informal consumer complaints.” You have to examine the actual proposal in order to find out that the FCC is eliminating language that describes the FCC’s review and disposition of informal complaints.
“Today’s decision is another win for good government,” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said, without mentioning the change to the informal complaint rule.