Wireless Industry Needs Better Oversight From FCC, Says Government Audit

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just completed a survey of wireless customers and a review of the “tens of thousands” of complaints made to the FCC every year, and they’ve reached a verdict: the FCC needs to step up and provide a better way for consumers to get help.

According to the GAO, the FCC does a great job of forwarding customer complaints to wireless carriers, but does little beyond that to follow up on issues, to enforce existing regulations, or to educate consumers on how or where to file complaints in the first place.

[FCC] has conducted little other oversight of services provided by wireless phone service carriers because the agency has focused on promoting competition.

However, GAO’s survey results suggest that most wireless consumers with problems would not complain to FCC and many do not know where they could complain.

[…]

Additionally, without knowing to complain to FCC or what outcome to expect if they do, consumers with problems may be confused about where to get help and about what kind of help is available. FCC monitors wireless consumer complaints, but such efforts are limited.

Lacking in-depth analysis of its consumer complaints, FCC may not be aware of emerging trends in consumer problems, if specific rules are being violated, or if additional rules are needed to protect consumers. FCC has rules regarding billing, but has conducted no enforcement of these rules as they apply to wireless carriers.

Oops. In the FCC’s defense, there’s only so far a budget will stretch, and it’s not like promoting competition is a trifling issue.

At the end of the report, the GAO recommends that the FCC:

  1. communicate better with customers,
  2. set up some internal analytics so that it can better monitor complaints, and
  3. communicate better with state agencies.

They note that FCC has said it has already begun to take action (for example when they asked Verizon to explain why it recently doubled its ETFs on smartphone customers):

We provided a draft of this report to FCC for its review and comment. FCC provided written comments, which appear in appendix V. FCC agreed with our recommendation on monitoring and had no position on the others, but noted it has started to take steps to address the issues we raise in our report.

In particular, FCC noted that its August 2009 notice of inquiry sought comment on a number of issues related to the findings and recommendations in this report. The agency views this action as the first step in implementing several of the report’s recommendations.

As an example, the agency has asked Verizon to explain how in the hell it can justify its recent doubling of Early Termination Fees for smartphone owners, especially since the carrier’s “we have to pay for those subsidized phones” excuse doesn’t seem to hold water.

“GAO: FCC must improve wireless industry oversight” [Associated Press]
“FCC Needs to Improve Oversight of Wireless Phone Service” (pdf) [Government Accountability Office]