FCC Strives to Keep on Top of Wireless Complaints Wireless Enforcement Division Is an Angry Consumer or Carriers Best Friend-But Could It Do More?
Posted in Articles, Wireless, Wireless Operators, Wireless Services, Service Providers, FCC, Finance & Regulatory
Increasing competition in the wireless marketplace is just around the corner in most cities. That is, if it hasn't already arrived as a new Personal Communications Services entrant, a paging reseller or the like. A customer-centric approach will become a necessity for survival, no question, but where exactly do these service providers get the information they need to stay on top of their businesses? Customer service departments, call centers, conferences and industry publications provide some pieces to the puzzle, but when it comes to obtaining data on what a wireless consumer wants-and hates-in a service provider, there is another source some may not have thought of: the Federal Communications Commission. The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, Enforcement Division of the FCC, is the central point of contact for disgruntled wireless users. Both end users (businesses and consumers) and the carriers themselves make up the constituency base for this relatively small office. It fields phone calls and written complaints and enters them into an FCC database. While this valuable information could make the lives of carriers' marketing and public relations departments much easier, unfortunately the level of detail available is limited. Still in its Infancy The Enforcement Division, which is less than three years old, is the sole repository for consumer complaints and carrier-to-carrier protests. Informal complaints are accepted free, while formal ones cost $150 for each defendant listed in the complaint. Both types of complaints must be in writing. Informal complaints can be from a consumer or a carrier about another carrier. The carrier has 30 days to satisfy the complaint as directed by the Enforcement Division, or inform the division in writing why it the carrier does not feel it should be required to do so. Formal complaints are treated much the same way, but instead of writing a letter the complaining carrier must fill out FCC form 159. Most formal complaints concern interference between the complainant and its competition. While the Enforcement Division oversees a broad range of services, including cellular, paging, PCS and amateur radio, the vast majority of the formal complaints fielded concern cellular carriers. From 1994 to 1996, the division received more than 16,500 calls, which resulted in logging roughly 2,700 complaints-and it estimates that complaints will increase exponentially in 1997. Myron Peck, deputy chief of the Enforcement Division, estimates that in the last year the amount of annual complaints nearly doubled. The primary reason cited is not a degeneration in carrier service levels, but rather the incredible growth of this industry has experienced in recent years. "As prices come down, more people can afford service," Peck says, and more subscribers translate into more complaints. In addition, today's customer base includes more end users with little wireless or technical experience-and these users might not understand as much about wireless service as the technology-savvy early adopters of the '80s. As the consumer takes center stage in the telecom industry, the Enforcement Division is at the front lines; carriers and their marketing departments view this information as vital feedback. Peck says carriers ask division representatives to come to their offices just to talk about the types of complaints the office receives. The division realizes its unique vantage point, and takes a serious approach to customer feedback. "Since it is very important that we all be in touch with the consumer, our entire staff answers these calls at anytime," says Howard Davenport, chief of enforcement. Davenport reports that nearly 80 percent of all consumer complaints are related to billing and customer care. He estimates that the number one complaint from consumers concerns the wireless carrier practice of rounding up minutes of use per call. The number two complaint is users saying they are being charged for calls they did not make. Next come complaints about termination fees (these have been dropping in volume in recent months), the high cost of roaming and poor quality of service. One complaint on the rise concerns equal access. Because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, wireless carriers are free to choose their customer's long distance carrier. As a result, many carriers are making this important choice for their customers without first asking for a preference. Apparently, consumers are less than thrilled with this situation. "We have consumers call about misleading advertisement, dropped calls, people wanting out of their service contracts, and on and on," Davenport says. "What they don't understand is that many of the carriers" software can't adjust [to meet market demand]. What we try and do is explain wireless service to the consumer, just as the sales people are supposed to do when they sign up in the first place. Sometimes it just takes some simple added explanations. After answering questions, filing an actual complaint is usually not necessary." New FCC Call Center Relieving Some Burden The Enforcement Division has received a helping hand in fielding these calls in recent months as the FCC's new call center opened in Gettysburg, Pa. Before the call center opening (the call center handles questions concerning all FCC-regulated services, not just wireless), the division handled between 20 and 25 calls a day. That number has since dropped to 15. While this takes part of the burden off the Enforcement Division, the call center does not handle the written complaints. That task-and the accompanying manual inputting-is still done by the division based in Washington, D.C. Written complaints are required-and fees attached, in formal cases-to ensure that carriers not use the division and its statistics as a means of "slamming" their competition, adds Davenport. Many problems, whether initiated by the consumer or carrier, can be worked out without actual litigation. The staff at the FCC stresses they aren't anxious to take legal action against any carrier, but rather seek to mediate and solve issues without going to court. For example, the Evergreen Provision arose from meetings between the Enforcement Division and several carriers. Consumers complained that their contracts were automatically being renewed unless they called to cancel. While this is still the case today, the Evergreen Provision now requires that particular section of the contact be highlighted so the consumer is more aware of that provision. Oracle It Ain't: System Drawbacks Customer feedback is vital information to wireless carriers. While in its current incarnation the Enforcement Division can be a valuable resource to the industry, there is no doubt its facilities could be much improved. The division's data mining capabilities are rudimentary; in fact, the actual order of the top complaints listed above are only guesstimates by division staff. To gain an exact figure on the top 10 complaints, division staff would need to sift through the mountains of letters and forms they received over the past year. The division, therefore, is not able to explain definitively to carriers, consumers or Congressional oversight committees which problems-or carriers-are the most often cited, let alone chart and graph the life-cycle of a particular complaint such as contract rollover or service quality. For example, if the complaint is billing-related, the only data kept in the system is that it was a billing complaint; the specifics of whether the call was dropped or if a charge was incorrect are not given. In addition, there is no way to know the nature or severity of particular complaints. Davenport, however, doesn't see a problem with the level of detail the office keeps. "I think the database is sufficient for determining the types of complaints that come into our office," he says. "We maintain enough of a breakdown of the problems in the database to serve the needs of both carriers and Congress." Nevertheless, Davenport does not rule out an upgrade to a more robust, modern computer database. "We are constantly looking to improve our processes so we can better identify needs," he comments. In fact, Peck said the FCC would like to eventually add either an in-office terminal or Web access to allow interested parties to explore past complaints. Still, Davenport thinks replacing the current system is at least three years down the road. While its systems may not be state of the art, the division fills an important industry need. Through teamwork and proactive carrier education efforts, the Wireless Telecommunication Bureau's Enforcement Division is trying to do its part to ensure the wireless customer of tomorrow receives better service than the consumer of today.
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