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Democrats slam FCC over complaint process reforms

Dems say consumers will be forced to pay $225 to have their complaints reviewed by the FCC. Officials say that just isn't true.

FCC Holds Vote On Repeal Of Net Neutrality Rules

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai considers a proposal to change the agency's consumer complaint process.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Democrats in Congress are expressing concern about a Federal Communications Commission plan to modify the consumer complaint process, saying it might push people to use a pricey option rather than a free one.

The FCC is expected to vote Thursday to finalize a proposal that will "streamline and consolidate" rules for lodging complaints against phone companies. The revised rules, if approved, would apply common deadlines for answering formal complaints and apply a shot clock to complaints about pole attachments.

The proposal also revises language around the informal complaint process, which some House Democrats say could hurt average consumers by steering them toward a formal process that requires a $225 filing fee.

On Tuesday, two Democratic leaders of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai expressing concern the changes will harm consumers. 

"As the chief communications regulator, the FCC plays a critical role in ensuring consumers -- including families, small businesses and struggling Americans -- get fair and honest treatment from their service providers," the representatives said in the letter. "We worry that the proposed change signals that the FCC no longer intends to play this role, and will instead simply tell consumers with limited means and time that they need to start an expensive and complicated formal legal process."

FCC officials say the proposed changes won't affect the informal complaint process and will streamline the filing of formal complaints. Currently, the formal complaint process consists of three sets of rules adopted at different times over the past three decades. The purpose of the revisions is to reduce red tape and cost.

"The item would not change the Commission's handling of informal complaints," an FCC spokesman said in an email. "The Democrats' letter is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the draft order."   

In their letter, Pallone and Doyle said they're concerned the FCC's proposal suggests the agency will stop reviewing informal complaints. Historically, the commission has conducted such reviews for free, before following up with companies. Instead, the lawmakers said, informal complaints will be forwarded directly to companies to resolve on their own. If consumers are still dissatisfied, they can file a costly formal complaint.

"At a time when consumers are highly dissatisfied with their communications companies, this abrupt change in policy troubles us," Pallone and Doyle wrote.