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GAO to FCC: Wireless users need more protection

Government Accountability Office says Thursday that the FCC needs to do more to protect subscribers who are dissatisfied with their service.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The Federal Communications Commission got a slap on the wrist Thursday from federal auditors for not doing enough to protect wireless subscribers.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report Thursday that said the FCC needs to improve oversight of the wireless industry to protect consumers. The agency said the FCC needs to do a better job enforcing consumer protection rules and educating the public about how they can submit complaints when they have experienced problems with their carriers.

The report was requested by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) when he was chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

The survey of more than 1,100 cell phone users found that the vast majority of wireless subscribers, 84 percent to be exact, are satisfied with their mobile phone service, which is good news for the industry. But for the millions of wireless consumers who are dissatisfied, the report determined that the FCC is not doing enough to help them resolve their problems or protect their interests.

One of the biggest issues uncovered in the report is the fact that carrier early termination fees are preventing dissatisfied consumers from switching carriers. The report found that among consumers who wanted to switch carriers but did not, about 42 percent said they didn't switch because of the early termination fees that carriers charge customers when they end their contracts early. These fees apply to consumers who sign up for carrier contracts and buy a subsidized device. The fees can cost anywhere between $150 and $350.

The industry argues that the fees are set so that carriers can cover the cost of subsidizing the phones. Congress and the FCC have questioned this practice and now all four major U.S. wireless carriers prorate their early termination fees.

The GAO report also found that the FCC is not providing enough oversight in how carriers resolve complaints. The FCC receives about 20,000 complaints from consumers per year, and it forwards these complaints to carriers. But the GAO said the agency does not provide enough oversight to make sure those issues are resolved.

"FCC also lacks goals and measures that clearly identify the intended outcomes of its complaint processing efforts," the report said. "Consequently, FCC cannot demonstrate the effectiveness of its efforts to process complaints."

Other issues cited in the report include billing problems. According to the report, about 34 percent of mobile-phone customers received unexpected charges on their bills. And roughly 31 percent had difficulty understanding their bill.

CTIA, the trade group that represents the mobile phone industry, pointed to the positive aspects of the report that found that 84 percent of customers were satisfied with their service.

"In this fiercely competitive industry, our members work very hard for each customer to provide them with the best products and services," Steve Largent, CTIA's president and CEO, said in a statement.

The GAO report suggests the FCC develop goals for handling consumer complaints. And it recommends that the agency analyze the complaints to identify trends and to see if carriers are actually complying with existing rules. The report also suggests the FCC come up with better ways to communicate with state officials to address some of these problems.

"The FCC can--and must--do more to make sure consumer concerns are resolved by wireless carriers and oversee the wireless industry with a greater focus on consumer protection," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), said in a statement. "It is time for the agency to take real action to better protect wireless consumers."

At the telecommunications and policy summit here on Thursday, Ruth Milkman, chief of the wireless telecommunications bureau at the FCC, said the agency is already addressing some of these issues. Last week it opened an inquiry into Verizon's recent early termination fee hike. Verizon Wireless raised the fee for terminating a contract for a smartphone to $350 from $175.

In a formal response to the GAO report, the FCC said it has already launched three proceedings examining mobile-phone practices. And the FCC also noted that it's developing a new system for tracking complaints.