No, the FCC is not forcing consumers to pay $225 to file complaints

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) logo is seen before the FCC Net Neutrality hearing in Washington February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Having your voice heard at the Federal Communications Commission could soon cost you hundreds of dollars, according to congressional Democrats Tuesday who oppose a looming rule change by the nation’s top telecom and cable regulator.

But that may not be the case after all, a review of the FCC proposal shows.

At issue is a proposal that the FCC is expected to vote on Thursday that looks at the agency’s process for handling “informal” complaints – the kind you might file if you’ve received an unwanted robocall or if you’ve heard something indecent on the radio.

Under the proposal, the FCC could soon pass the informal complaints it receives directly to the companies that consumers are complaining about, the lawmakers said in a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. That might result in FCC staff no longer reviewing those submissions, they said. And customers who receive no relief from the companies would then be forced to lodge a “formal” complaint at the FCC, an existing procedure that costs $225.

“To advise consumers that they file a $225 formal complaint if not satisfied ignores the core mission of the FCC – working in the public interest,” wrote Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Mike Doyle, D-Penn. The controversy was first reported by The Verge. Staffers for the House Energy and Commerce Committee didn’t immediately respond to request for comment.

The FCC said in a statement that the lawmakers had misunderstood the proposal.

“The item would not change the Commission’s handling of informal complaints,” the agency said.

A closer look at the existing policy – alongside the FCC’s proposal – suggests the agency may be correct.

The proposed changes to the FCC rules allow for the agency to send complaints to companies, and they do recommend that consumers who are dissatisfied with the results file a “formal” complaint. But both the new policy and the existing policy are worded similarly.

The proposal recommends changing the rules to read this way:

Ҥ 1.717 Procedure.

“The Commission will forward informal complaints to the appropriate carrier for investigation and may set a due date for the carrier to provide a written response to the informal complaint to the Commission, with a copy to the complainant. The response will advise the Commission of the carrier’s satisfaction of the complaint or of its refusal or inability to do so. Where there are clear indications from the carrier’s response or from other communications with the parties that the complaint has been satisfied, the Commission may, in its discretion, consider a complaint proceeding to be closed. In all other cases, the 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 in accordance with § 1.721 of this part.”

While the new language appears to imply a substantive change to the current policy, the existing policy is almost identical:

Ҥ 1.717 Procedure.

“The Commission will forward informal complaints to the appropriate carrier for investigation. The carrier will, within such time as may be prescribed, advise the Commission in writing, with a copy to the complainant, of its satisfaction of the complaint or of its refusal or inability to do so. Where there are clear indications from the carrier’s report or from other communications with the parties that the complaint has been satisfied, the Commission may, in its discretion, consider a complaint proceeding to be closed, without response to the complainant. In all other cases, 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 in accordance with § 1.721 of this part.”

The rest of the FCC proposal largely deals with formal complaints and their associated processes, including fact-finding, conferences between parties that are in dispute and establishing timelines for quick complaint resolution.

The proposed changes alone do not rule out the possibility of the FCC cutting back on its staff’s involvement with consumers who file informal complaints. But the changes do not appear to push consumers toward filing formal complaints any more than the current policy does. And the FCC confirmed in a statement to The Washington Post Wednesday that agency officials will remain engaged with informal complainants under the updated policy.

“We will continue to review informal complaints as outlined,” said FCC spokesman Brian Hart, referring to a guide that the agency has published for consumers.

The FCC has also published other guidance describing what happens when a consumer files an informal complaint. Complaints about privacy and billing can result in a FCC staffer getting involved. Complaints about robocalls and the Do Not Call list are shared with various departments within the FCC, and can result in investigations and fines against companies, but do not generally lead to an FCC staffer contacting individual consumers.

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