Complaining to state about phones could end

MGN Online
MGN Online

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Customers might no longer be able to call the state’s utility regulatory board to complain about phone service.

A bill moving through the Alabama Legislature would complete the deregulation of home and business phone service by ending the Public Service Commission’s ability to handle customer complaints about their landlines.

The bill is being pushed by AT&T, the state’s largest phone company. The company’s Alabama president, Fred McCallum, said regulation is no longer needed because the industry has gone from a monopoly to a highly competitive marketplace where disgruntled customers have alternatives.

“If we don’t satisfy them, they leave us,” McCallum said.

For decades, Alabama phone customers had no choice about which company served their homes or businesses. The state was divided into territories with one company serving each area. Then came cellphones and Internet-based phone service. Pay phones that used to be in front of convenience stores and gas stations disappeared as cellphones became common, and many customers began dropping their landline phones at home and started relying solely on cellphones.

McCallum said his family is typical of the changing times. He still has a landline phone at home; his two grown children don’t.

The PSC doesn’t regulate cellphones or Internet-based phone service. The Legislature has already ended the PSC’s control of rates for landline phones in homes and businesses, and now the last bit of regulation over complaints could end.

“It’s a natural progression. As competition increases, regulation goes down,” McCallum said.

PSC President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh said she’s not taking a position for or against the bill and will do whatever the Legislature wants.

Darrell Baker, director of the PSC’s telecommunications division, said the PSC received 749 complaints about phone service last year that resulted in investigations by the staff. Of those, 588 involved AT&T. He said there were more calls about AT&T because it supplies about 70 percent of Alabama’s landlines, not because its customers had more problems than those of other phone companies.

Many of the complaints are about billing. “They’ve gone through the company and are not satisfied,” he said.

Baker said a customer with a complaint has to start at the bottom with a customer service representative, but the PSC can start at the top of the phone companies.

McCallum said customers can also get to the top because AT&T has an appeals group that handles complaints when a customer representative doesn’t satisfy someone.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Hill of Columbiana, steered the bill through the House Transportation, Utilities and Infrastructure Committee with broad support Wednesday. The bill now goes to the House for consideration. Hill is optimistic about the bill’s chances in a Republican-led Legislature that favors deregulation.

“This is the final leg of deregulation that is left outstanding,” he said.

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