Kennedy backs off cell-phone users alternate bill of rights

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WASHINGTON — California Public Utilities Commission member Susan Kennedy has decided not to offer a competing bill of rights for telecom consumers-one that exempts mobile-phone carriers from new rules-during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s review of existing state regulations.

”We will not put out an alternate during the governor’s moratorium on new regulations. We support the governor’s objective of analyzing the economic impact of new regulations before moving forward with the (consumer bill of rights) proposed decision, and that includes any alternate Commissioner Kennedy might write,” said Ross Lajeunesse, chief of staff to Kennedy.

Mobile-phone operators strongly oppose the bill of rights, which was penned by Commissioner Carl Wood. Wood is working with Commissioner Geoffrey Brown, the swing vote, on changes to the plan. Wood describes the changes as minor. The wireless industry predicts the bill of rights will lead to job losses and hurt the California economy.

Kennedy agrees.

”We also believe the economic analysis will show that more harm than good will come from the implementation of new, highly prescriptive regulations on telecommunications companies and that’s not even taking into account the time, expense and effort involved with the wrangling and litigation that will likely occur if we try to put these new regulations into effect,” said Lajeunesse.

Last fall, Kennedy’s staff said the commissioner would issue a new bill of rights stripped of any additional obligations for wireless carriers.

Given Schwarzenegger’s request that the California PUC honor an executive order freezing new regulations for 180 days, it is unclear when-or whether-regulators will vote on Wood’s bill of rights. The PUC, an independent agency, is not bound by the governor’s directive.

The proposed bill of rights-a big issue for mobile-phone carriers in the state-has huge national implications. Other states, some of which have taken legal action to address wireless consumer complaints, could decide to adopt the California PUC plan instead of drawing up their own guides. For that reason, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association is so concerned that it broke with tradition of staying out of state affairs and has contributed more than $200,000 for California lobbyists to get the initiative derailed.

In addition to considering the bill of rights, the California PUC is reviewing an appeal of a $12 million fine against Cingular Wireless L.L.C. for business practices that state regulators claim broke state law.

Cingular, co-owned by SBC Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. and reportedly in merger talks with AT&T Wireless Services Inc., denies any wrongdoing. Cingular said it is unfairly being singled out by California regulators.

Minn. sues Cellular One

Elsewhere, Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch has sued Cellular One in state court for alleged billing overcharges.

The lawsuit claims the wireless carrier violated consumer fraud law and engaged in deceptive trade practices. Cellular One is owned by American Cellular Corp., headquartered in Oklahoma City and owned by Dobson Communications Corp.

”Cellular One has improperly charged regional and Dakota digital plan subscribers call delivery fees for inbound calls within the subscribers’ home rate coverage area,” stated Hatch in a Jan. 9 amended complaint filed in St. Louis County, Minn., court. ”Cellular One has also charged some of its subscribers fees for both inbound and outbound calls made in the subscribers’ home rate coverage area that were routed through specific cellular towers not owned by Cellular One.”

Dobson did not immediately return a call for comment.

Meanwhile, a consumer lawsuit against Nextel Communications Inc. in California state court is moving forward. The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said a Los Angeles Superior Court judge agreed to let the consumer watchdog group’s billing suit against Nextel proceed.

FTCR said Nextel‘s policy of no longer issuing itemized bills -begun Oct. 1- makes it impossible to detect billing errors, including charges for four phony text messages the company sent every customer in September.

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