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GAO Pressures FCC To Help Wireless Consumers

The Government Accountability Office wants the Federal Communications Commission to enforce consumer protection rules.

The Federal Communications Commission receives tens of thousands of complaints every year from mobile phone users. This week it received yet another complaint -- from the Government Accountability Office, which wants the FCC to improve its enforcement of consumer protection rules.

In its report "Telecommunications: FCC Needs to Improve Oversight of Wireless Phone Service," the GAO noted that the complaints the FCC receives are forwarded to carriers for response, but the commission provides "little other oversight" for the 9% to 14% of consumers who complain about their wireless service.

"While the percentages of dissatisfied users appear small," the GAO report states, "given the widespread use of wireless phones, these percentages represent millions of consumers." The report was prepared in response to a request from Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet.

Arguing that the FCC lacks goals and measures for monitoring the handling of complaints, the GAO said the FCC couldn't clearly identify whether the complaints were properly handled. The report also noted that consumers with complaints often don't know how to complain to the FCC, adding to the lack of complaint data received by the commission.

"Lacking in-depth analysis of its consumer complaints, the 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," the GAO said.

The government research and oversight agency also addressed the often uncertain relationship that exists between the FCC and state regulatory agencies. The GAO indicated that some disagreements exist between the FCC and states on the regulation of billing line items and early termination fees.

The GAO report was immediately hailed by David Coen, president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, who praised the report's suggestion that the FCC should "partner with state agencies in providing effective oversight." The 50 states have a patchwork of regulations that aren't uniform and that can strain relationships between FCC and the states.

Responding to the GAO report, the FCC said it is pursuing "appropriate steps to fashion any needed regulatory action for protecting consumer interests" as it reviews the entire wireless market. In recent days, the FCC has been proactive on the early termination fee issue, asking Verizon Wireless why it recently doubled some of its ETF charges.

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