Controversy erupts over FCC's complaint handling skills

Government auditors today issued a report highly critical of the way the Federal Communications Commission handled some of the 454,000 complaints it received between 2003 and 2006 saying the agency needs to improve how it tracks and responds to consumer, safety and service complaints.

The FCC didn't like the report, issued by the Government Accountability Office, disagreeing with the way its research was conducted and saying it already has implemented measures to address concerns. The FCC fields complaints on everything from unsolicited calls and quality of telecommunications services to indecent broadcast materials and number portability.

The GAO acknowledged the FCC but said the actions it identified do not fully address the GAO's recommendations and laid partial blame on the FCC's use of five individual databases to track complaints.

"Limitations in FCC's current approach for collecting and analyzing enforcement data constitute the principal challenge FCC faces in providing complete and accurate information on its enforcement program. These limitations make it difficult to analyze trends; determine program effectiveness; allocate Commission resources; or accurately track and monitor key aspects of all complaints received, investigations conducted, and enforcement actions taken, "the GAO said.

According to the GAO, as of December 31, 2006, the FCC had processed almost 95% of the 454,000 complaints it received from 2003 through 2006. Of the 23,000 complaints that were not processed, about 84%, or 19,400, were pending for less than 1 year, and about 16%, or almost 3,600, were pending for 1 to 4 years. Most of the complaints that remained pending were potential The largest number of complaints alleged violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), including violations of the do-not-call list request and telemarketing during prohibited hours and billing violations.Enforcement actions can help correct identified compliance problems and deter future noncompliance, the GAO stated.

The majority of the investigations conducted from 2003 through 2006, which totaled about 20,000, were potential violations regarding antenna lighting and structure requirements, junk faxes, domestic interference, and indecency. FCC took enforcement actions in about 1,300 of these investigations; admonishments, warnings, citations, and notices of violation were the primary actions taken.

FCC rarely relied on more serious enforcement actions, such as issuing an order to cease and desist. According to FCC, it takes several factors into account, such as the nature and extent of the violation and whether the violator had any history of prior offenses, before determining the type of enforcement action.

According to the GAO the FCC's Top 10 complaint list looks like this:

1. General solicitations (TPCA): Complaints regarding the receipt of unsolicited calls or messages for the purpose of encouraging the purchase, rental, or investment in property, goods, or services.

2. Billing and rates: Complaints regarding a number of issues, including airtime charges, roaming rates, credit, and refund adjustments.

3. Referral to government agencies/FCC offices/states: Complaints beyond FCC's jurisdiction, such as intrastate billing charges and expanded local calling service. Service related issues.

4. Complaints regarding the quality of services provided by cable, satellite, wireless, and wireline providers: Carrier marketing and advertising Complaints regarding advertising and marketing practices of carriers, including misrepresentation.

5. Programming issues: Complaints regarding programs, such as those that allegedly contain indecent, obscene, or profane material.6. Number portability: Complaints regarding the porting of telephone numbers from a wireline to a wireless carrier or the reverse.

7. Slamming: Complaints regarding the switching of a consumer's telephone services from one telephone company, or from one calling plan, to another.

8. Cramming: Complaints regarding unauthorized, misleading, or deceptive charges on a consumer's telephone bill for services and products.

9. Operator Service Provider issues: Complaints about a common carrier that provides services from public phones, including payphones, and those in hotels or motels.

10. All other complaints: Complaints such as those regarding connection to cable service, closed captioning of video programs, digital subscriber lines, and may also include consumer inquiries.

According to FCC, it assessed fines and negotiated payments through consent decrees, which totaled about $73 million from 2003 through 2006, and has collected about $53 million, or 72%. However, the amount of the fines and payments negotiated through consent decrees decreased, from about $25 million in 2003 and $26 million in 2004, to almost $11 million in 2005 and $12 million in 2006-a decrease of more than 50%.

According to an FCC Enforcement Bureau senior official, the phasing out of carrier interLATA rules (section 271) complaints may have contributed to this decrease. FCC staff also stated that the amount of fines and negotiated payments through consent decrees totaled about $43 million in 2007.

The FCC's Enforcement Bureau periodically reviews some of its enforcement program outputs to determine how well it is doing in certain areas but does not use its data to evaluate the outcomes of its enforcement efforts. The Enforcement Bureau's ability to assess the impact of its enforcement program is limited because it does not have a well-defined enforcement strategy, specific enforcement goals, or performance measures. We have previously reported that a key element in an organization's efforts to manage for results is its ability to select meaningful performance goals and measures, the GAO stated.

Without these key management tools, FCC faces challenges in managing its enforcement program and in fully assuring Congress and other stakeholders that it is meeting its enforcement mission and related objectives of the Act, which include protecting the consumer, ensuring public safety, and encouraging competition.

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