Can the FCC Offer Up Some Real Reform?

Last week, when the FCC published an order aimed at halting the collection of and reporting on the quality of telephone service on a nationwide basis, we were pretty disappointed, as it came off like the agency was just throwing in the towel on real regulation and reform. Since one of the reasons behind the FCC decision is that the data is available at state utility commissions, I surfed and called around to the commissions at the five most populous states to see how difficult it is to compile and compare quality of service data.

My conclusion? It’s no picnic. Beginning with my home state of Texas, it took a phone call to get a basic report faxed over (they can’t email it). The report offers the total complaints registered against telecommunications companies vs. those lodged against electrical companies and lists the top offenders in each category. More details require a Freedom of Information Act request and a wait of up to 10 business days. California required a phone call and some back and forth to get some information, which includes data on the number of repairs and the amount of time a customer waits for refunds. A week later, I’m still waiting to hear back from the commission in New York.

Illinois publishes its quarterly quality reports on its web site, and tracks information ranging from length of time services were out and whether credits were issued for no service to the amount of time it took to get an operator on the line. Florida also published the reports on its web site, but the most recent one for AT&T (the company I was trying to track) is from 2007. Florida tracks a lot of stuff (their reports are about 24 pages compared to one in other states) from the timeliness of repairs and to how long it takes to get a number listed in directory assistance.

So compiling and comparing these reports to get a measure of how network quality and customer service complaints are settled is not all that easy and may not even be doable, since the information might be old and may not match across all states. At the least, it would at least take multiple FOIA requests and weeks rather than days. My research covered five states where about 36 percent of the population lives, but an apples-to-apples comparison on a nationwide basis seems to be impossible.

Another FCC objection to collecting this data is that it only covers access lines, the wireline telephone service rapidly going out of style in many households. I agree with the FCC that this data is bordering on obsolete, but instead of ditching it, the federal government should really expand the regulatory oversight of other voice services, from wireless to cable VoIP.

The difference between regulation of various broadband delivered services from video to voice should be eliminated, and it should be done at the federal level. Cable companies and telecommunications firms should not be held to different standards when it comes to reporting quality data, getting local franchise agreements for deploying television services or even requirements to serve rural areas. There will be plenty of fights over which questions to ask given how different the cable and telco networks are, but at the end of the day both types of companies are offering video, voice and data over broadband. They should play by the same rules.