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Probe launched into Pac Bell DSL flap

A California regulatory agency is investigating whether SBC Pacific Bell overcharged hundreds of customers for broadband services.

A California regulatory agency is investigating whether SBC Pacific Bell overbilled customers of its broadband services.

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) said Thursday that it has opened an investigation into charges that Pacific Bell--owned by SBC Communications--overbilled customers for DSL (digital subscriber line) and other services.

The commission is also looking at whether Pacific Bell under-reported complaints regarding "cramming," the practice of putting false charges on customers' bills that are unrelated to actual telephone use.

The PUC said that between 1999 and 2001, it received 753 consumer complaints from customers of Pacific Bell, SBC Advanced Solutions and Pacific Bell Internet Services regarding unauthorized Internet and DSL services.

Complaints included billing customers for services ordered but not received, billing for unordered services, billing twice for the same service, and billing consumers for services that were promoted as free or less expensive than the actual charge.

"We're disappointed that the commission is reaching back so many months into the past to investigate complaints that we believe for the most part have been corrected," said Pacific Bell spokesman John Britton.

He said the billing issues occurred when Pacific Bell moved customers to the Advanced Solutions affiliate, a move mandated by the Federal Communications Commission when SBC acquired Ameritech in 1999.

"There were some billing issues that occurred and we've properly credited anybody that's come to our attention, and so for the most part, that is behind us," Britton said.

He acknowledged that "there were some discrepancies" between the complaints received by the commission and the reports submitted by Pacific Bell, and that the company had already notified the PUC that it would file revised reports.

In 2001, the PUC received 283 complaints against Advanced Solutions, even though Pacific Bell reported no complaints for that affiliate in its three reports to the commission.

The PUC is asking the companies to turn over all billing-related customer complaints in California from 1999 through the present by Feb. 22.

The investigation comes at a critical time for Pacific Bell. The company is trying to get permission to enter California's long-distance market, a move that has prompted opposition from competitors and consumer groups.

In December of last year, the California-based Utility Consumers' Action Network (UCAN) issued a warning to consumers regarding allegations of cramming by Pacific Bell. UCAN filed a complaint with the PUC against Pacific Bell last month.