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FCC needs to smother eight burning wireless service fires

The Federal Communications Commission complaint handling skills are but one of the main issues causing the agency heartburn today as government watchdogs issued a final report critical of the way it has handled the growing wireless service industry.

The Government Accountability Office report issued today said that while 84% of US mobile-phone customers are mostly satisfied with their service, many problems exist.

The key areas of concern, from the GAO report:

1. Complaints: The FCC receives tens of thousands of wireless consumer complaints each year and forwards them to carriers for response, but has conducted little other oversight of services provided by wireless phone service carriers because the agency has focused on promoting competition. The GAO’s survey results suggest that most wireless consumers with problems would not complain to FCC and many do not know where they could complain. Lacking in-depth analysis of its consumer complaints, FCC may not be aware of emerging trends in consumer problems, if specific rules are being violated, or if additional rules are needed to protect consumers.

2. Billing: Complexity of wireless billing statements leads to lack of consumer understanding. Bills contain unexpected charges and errors. The GAO estimates that during its study about 34% of wireless phone users responsible for paying for their service received unexpected charges and about 31% had difficulty understanding their bill at least some of the time. The FCC has rules regarding billing, but has conducted no enforcement of these rules as they apply to wireless carriers. This August, FCC sought public comment about ways to better protect and inform wireless consumers.

3. Terms of service contract: Consumers are subject to fees for canceling their service before the end of their contract term (early termination fees), regardless of their reason for wanting to terminate service, and effectively locking consumers into their contracts. Consumers are not given enough time to try out their service before having to commit to the contract. Carriers extend contracts when consumers request service changes.

4. Explanation of service: Key aspects of service, such as rates and coverage, are not clearly explained to consumers when they sign up for the service. Among wireless users who wanted to switch carriers during this time but did not do so, the GAO estimates that 42% did not switch because they did not want to pay an early termination fee

5. Call quality: Consumers experience dropped or blocked calls as well as noise on calls that makes hearing calls difficult. Consumers experience poor coverage, which in rural areas may be the result of lack of infrastructure and in urban areas stems from lack of capacity to manage the volume of calls at peak times.

6. Customer service: Consumers experience problems such as long waits, ineffective assistance, and insufficient resolution to problems. Among those users who contacted customer service, we estimate that 21 percent were very or somewhat dissatisfied with how the carrier handled the problem. The GAO said analysis of FCC consumer complaint data also indicates that billing, terms of the service contract, and customer service are areas where wireless consumers have experienced problems in recent years.

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