Guaranteeing consumers such basic rights as accurate phone bills could hardly offend wireless carriers and other telecommunications companies, California Public Utilities Commission member Geoffrey F. Brown figured when he introduced his version of the Telecommunications Consumer Bill of Rights.
He's finding out how wrong he was.
As the PUC prepares to vote Thursday on three competing proposals, Brown and his fellow commissioners are enduring a fierce round of arm-twisting. Most of it is coming from the largely unfettered wireless industry, which is working through the governor's office, the Legislature and even federal regulators in Washington.
"We've taken their changes and taken their changes, and at the end of the day nothing is good enough for them," Brown said of efforts to derail even a version widely viewed as friendly to wireless companies.
The Assembly on Monday passed a measure that critics say would gut the PUC's bill of rights proposals -- and take away existing consumer protections as well. The measure, which amends some consumer provisions in a 1986 public utilities law, is pending in the Senate.
The PUC began working on a telecom bill of rights four years ago to protect customers from misleading offers, overstated promises on coverage, billing overcharges and unilateral changes in service contracts.
Commissioner Carl W. Wood, who oversaw the process, issued the initial draft and has amended it several times. Brown and Commissioner Susan P. Kennedy introduced competing versions this month. The PUC is expected to pass one of them.
The commission is an independent agency with rule- making powers that carry the force of law. But the Legislature can override its actions by changing underlying laws.
Industry behemoths like Verizon Wireless as well as small players like Leap Wireless International Inc.'s Cricket service, which operates in a few Northern California counties, see no reason for the rules and have complained loudly to state and federal officials.
"The rules are just not necessary," said Michael Bagley, Verizon Wireless' West region public policy director. "It adds a lot of cost and burden to the business and runs the risk of higher prices for consumers."
Much of the industry's angst is "just crocodile tears," said Janee Briesemeister of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. "Once California does anything to impose some standards on the industry, other states will follow -- and with stronger provisions."
Brown said he had been inundated with calls from federal and state politicians and even a Federal Communications Commission official.
"You turn on the news and you get some congressman from Kansas saying this is wrong," Brown said. "On C-SPAN, someone is talking about the California Consumer Bill of Rights as if it's the Iraqi [conflict]. You get [FCC Commissioner Kathleen] Abernathy saying this is killing competition."
Steve Largent, head of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn., has met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as have executives from the six major wireless firms, to argue that the proposed bill of rights is bad for business.
"Where's the abuse?" Largent asked. "What's the problem?"
The PUC's Kennedy agreed, saying the two other drafts are too broad, too vague and too expensive for the industry. "The only reason I'm putting out an alternate is to provide a rational proposal."
Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey), who chairs the committee overseeing the PUC, pointed out that the agency was designed to protect ratepayers, "not to protect utilities." Her committee is the next stop for the Assembly's bill.
"It's likely that's where it's going to stay," Bowen said.