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Dial P-U-C for Protection

A bill of rights would help make sense of the crazy quilt faced by the state's phone users.

September 22, 2003

Modern technology, alas, didn't just take that old black telephone and make it better. It also opened the present era of testy relations between customers and the myriad firms competing in cutthroat fashion to offer the array of telephone-related services that addicted Californians find both gladdening and maddening. Just how are consumers and small businesses supposed to protect themselves from flourishing abuses like slamming (getting switched from one provider to another without consent) or cramming (getting sold costly, unwanted extra services)?

Carl Wood, a state Public Utilities Commission member, has the right number. He wants a telecommunications bill of rights. (The PUC's proposal can be seen at It's must reading for any Californian who has squinted at tiny print in a cellphone ad or struggled through a bevy of charges and fees cluttering a phone bill. The still-evolving document promises to protect consumers and small-business owners who have questions and complaints about the telecommunication industry's increasingly confusing pricing plans.

Telecom regulation hasn't kept pace as technology has exploded, creating cellphones that fit in a shirt pocket and that zap video images and text messages globally, as well as double as mini-computers. Regulators haven't kept up with firms that bombard customers with dizzying choices on phone cards and options for local and long-distance service. As Wood pushes for the PUC to jump in and ahead, the telecom industry fumes and opposes his efforts. The cellphone folks have proposed what he calls a "wimpy" code to curb problems in their industry; problem is, the industry prefers voluntary efforts only.

The government shouldn't quash technological advances or fair competition. But California's telephones -- whether the battered model hanging in the family kitchen or an executive's featherweight pocket-sized cell -- are part of a public utility and a public service. Customers deserve the comfort of knowing that a state agency will help protect their interests when they need it.

Most of what the telecom bill of rights would guarantee is straightforward -- the right to receive a hard copy of a contract in the mail, a grace period to determine whether the product or service performs as promised and advertising that's easy to read and doesn't mislead.

As Wood puts it, "You shouldn't have to be a lawyer to enter into an everyday transaction." If that rings true, buzz the commissioners to let them know that they should approve the telecom bill of rights at their Oct. 2 meeting.

To Take Action: The PUC e-mail comment form is at Its headquarters phone in San Francisco is (415) 703-2782. Its Los Angeles number is (213) 576-7000.

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