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State commission takes on DSL troubles

California customers complaining of overpricing and service failures related to DSL Internet access now have a state authority to turn to.

Dissatisfied DSL customers in California now have a state authority to turn to.

The California Public Utilities Commission announced last week that it will take regulatory oversight for high-speed DSL (digital subscriber line) Internet services in the state. The decision is seen as a small win for consumers who have suffered through service failures, high prices and other frustrations from companies including BellSouth and Verizon Communications.

Some consumer advocates see California's decision paving the way for other state PUCs to step in and fill the regulatory gap.

"Illinois is having lots of problems with Ameritech," Michael Shames, executive director of the San Diego-based Utility Consumers' Action Network, said of the SBC subsidiary. "And Massachusetts is also getting lots of complaints."

While the move is good news for consumers, it has raised some sticky issues about regulation with SBC and the California ISP Association, which disagree about what the PUC's involvement will mean for Internet service providers.

The California PUC couldn't comment, as offices were closed for Cesar Chavez Day. But both sides have said the issues are likely to get ironed out in SBC's hearing at the end of April.

"Now consumers finally have a place to go to report problems, and there are many of them," Shames said.

Consumer complaints against SBC include billing for services ordered but never received, billing for services that were not ordered, multiple billings for the same service, and billing for services that were promoted as free.

SBC spokesman John Britton said most of those customer service problems are long in the past. He said the PUC still has limited jurisdiction over its business practices, since it can't deal with issues about "pricing, rates and speeds," which fall under federal jurisdiction.

The other issue of contention centers on "provisioning"--the allotment of DSL services to other ISPs. SBC owns 90 percent of the DSL business in California and is dragging its feet with other ISPs, preventing them from stepping in with better service, according to the California ISP Association, which represents 130 ISPs in California.

The PUC has said it has jurisdiction over provisioning, something the California ISP Association contends will help ISPs get better service and promote a more competitive environment.

"The state of California isn't going to roll over to (SBC's) raucous scorched-earth strategy to remove any kind of regulatory oversight to broadband," said Mike Jackman, executive director of the California ISP Association.

But SBC has a different understanding. Britton insisted that SBC has only "one provisioning interval."

"All ISPs, even our own, have the same provisioning time," he said.

A battle between the PUC and SBC has been going on since at least October, when SBC said the PUC didn't have jurisdiction over its business practices. The PUC filed a counterclaim in November, accusing SBC of trying to weasel customers out of proper protection.