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PUC Member Seeks Delay of 'Bill of Rights'

Susan Kennedy makes the proposal so the cellphone industry has more time to comply with the consumer protection rules.

January 06, 2005|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

A key state regulator late Wednesday proposed shelving what would be the nation's first consumer protection rules for those who use cellphones and other telecommunications services.

Public Utilities Commission member Susan P. Kennedy said the move was warranted because mobile carriers need more time to comply with the complex set of changes demanded by the so-called bill of rights.

Among other things, the rules provide a 30-day trial period allowing customers to test products and calling plans and to return them without paying penalties. The rules also require clearly organized billing, specific disclosures and writing that is unambiguous. Deceptive marketing is prohibited.

Kennedy, a vociferous opponent of the consumer protection rules, was on the short end of a 3-2 vote last May that adopted the bill of rights. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also had opposed the action, as did the cellular phone industry.

Two of those voting for the bill of rights -- sponsor Carl W. Wood and Loretta M. Lynch -- left the commission when their terms expired last week, and Kennedy will be looking to Schwarzenegger's new appointees for votes at next Thursday's meeting.

Scrapping the bill of rights is seen as one of the top priorities of Kennedy, who was not available for comment Wednesday.

"Susan is determined by hook or by crook to undermine the bill of rights that was passed last year," said Michael Shames, president of consumer advocacy group the Utility Consumers' Action Network in San Diego. "Though she fought and lost, she's using a procedural mechanism to get the issue back before the commission again."

Cellular phone companies like Verizon Wireless insist that there isn't a need for the bill of rights because competition has reduced complaints and led to better service.

The industry also has complained that the deadline to implement the new rules, shortened to six months from 18 months initially, is not enough time for carriers to adjust billing systems, computer systems and contracts for supplier services.

"You're impacting national systems," said Michael Bagley, Verizon Wireless' executive director for public policy in California. "To do the information technology work to change things is very difficult in that time frame."

Kennedy called for an indefinite delay in implementing the bill of rights, citing in part a letter that PUC Executive Director Steve Larson sent to carriers Tuesday.

Larson used his authority to grant delays until April to as many as 45 carriers that complained about their inability to meet deadlines on nine matters. They include changes in marketing practices, service initiation, prepaid calling cards, billing, disputes and service termination.

The new commissioners, Steve Poizner and Dian Grueneich, will be sworn in Tuesday. Shames said it would be highly unusual if either voted at their first meeting to change anything a previous commission had just enacted.

"These commissioners haven't looked at the record and haven't been briefed," Shames said. "To do what the governor wants at their first meeting would be a disparagement of the institution itself."

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