Cell phone decision spurs fears of a shift at utility commission

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Ventura County Star (California)

SAN FRANCISCO — Consumer advocates worry that this week’s decision by the California Public Utilities Commission to suspend protections for cell phone users signals a shift within the powerful regulatory agency, tipping its focus toward the interests of business.

They warn it could lead to fewer consumer protections and another attempt at electricity deregulation, which resulted in blackouts and soaring utility costs just four years ago.

Thursday’s 3-1 vote to suspend the landmark Telecommunications Consumer Bill of Rights demonstrates that the commission is becoming more friendly to the businesses it is charged with regulating, said Doug Heller, a consumer advocate with the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights.

Two members who were considered strong voices for consumer protection were recently replaced.

“Yesterday demonstrated how radically different the PUC is this year than it was last,” Heller said Friday. “I think Californians are in danger of losing the protections that the PUC was set up to provide.”

Others said PUC critics are reading too much into the cell phone vote.

“I think this commission is trying to strike a more reasonable balance between consumer protection and regulatory costs to the companies,” said Lester Wong, adviser to PUC President Michael Peevey, who voted for the suspension. “If you have rules that cost businesses a lot of money but don’t really provide real protections to the consumer, that’s not really being consumer-friendly.”

The PUC regulates key sectors of the state’s economy, including electricity, water, natural gas, railroads and telecom-munications. The five commissioners are appointed by the governor and serve six-year terms.

Thursday’s vote to suspend the bill of rights was the PUC‘s first major decision since the Dec. 31 departure of commissioners Loretta Lynch and Carl Wood, who were considered strong advocates for consumers and had reached the end of their terms.

In their place, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Dian Grueneich, an attorney with a background in energy and environmental issues, and high-tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner, who made an unsuccessful bid for state Assembly last fall.

Grueneich was sworn in last week. Poizner has not yet been sworn in, so he didn’t take part in Thursday’s vote. Neither has been confirmed by the Senate yet but can serve for up to a year without confirmation.

Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Santa Monica, chair of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Commerce Committee, said that when the senate holds confirmation hearings, Thursday’s vote will be a “starting point for a lot questions about how the two new appointees see their role vis-a-vis utility companies.”

Thursday’s vote marked a major reversal for the consumer bill of rights, which became the nation’s toughest set of wireless phone regulations when the agency approved it in May. The regulations, prompted by consumer complaints about false advertising and confusing billing practices, required wireless carriers do a better job of explaining their rates and services.

Commissioner Susan Kennedy, who was joined by Grueneich and Peevey in voting to suspend the bill of rights, said the regulations could cause some wireless carriers to raise their rates or leave the state.

The suspension was criticized by consumer groups, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, all of California’s district attorneys and Commissioner Geoffrey Brown, who cast the dissenting vote.
Terence Chea reported from San Francisco; Jennifer Coleman reported from Sacramento.

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