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My Turn: N.H. Senate amendment puts 2012 consumer phone protections at risk

Senate Bill 48, passed last year, removed New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission oversight and regulation for much of the telecommunications industry, while preserving minimum consumer protections.

The bill preserved the obligation of incumbent phone companies, like FairPoint, to provide basic phone service. It provided safeguards against unlimited rate increases for basic phone service customers and eligible low-income “Lifeline” customers. And it preserved the authority of the PUC to handle consumer protection complaints about basic phone service.

About a week ago, the Senate attached an amendment onto House Bill 542, a bill dealing with renewable energy. The amendment deals with telecommunications. Parts of the amendment significantly scale back the consumer protections for basic phone service provided in Senate Bill 48.

Indeed, if the amendment is enacted into law, it would mean that more than 96 percent of FairPoint’s residential phone customers will lose protections at the PUC for basic phone service.

Under SB 48, the PUC is allowed to handle complaints about basic phone service – but not any other service. The proposed amendment would cause any person receiving any service or feature beyond basic phone service to lose their ability to get help from the PUC for basic phone service complaints.

Under the proposed amendment, if anyone has a calling feature, such as caller ID, call waiting or even voice mail, they would lose their consumer protections for basic phone service at the PUC. If anyone has long-distance service, they automatically lose their consumer protections for basic phone service.

These customers would lose PUC consumer protections related to such issues as poor service, security deposits, disconnections and reconnections of service, reasonable payment arrangements, medical emergency protections, and billing disputes and charges.

According to FairPoint, only about 5,000 of its approximately 150,000 residential customers fit the description of those who would retain their rights with the PUC under the amendment. That’s less than 4 percent of FairPoint customers. More than 96 percent would be left without the ability to get help from the PUC about basic phone service.

The proposed amendment would also mean that customers cannot complain to the PUC about whether FairPoint is, in fact, meeting its obligation to provide basic phone service, or whether FairPoint is complying with the limits on rate increases for basic phone service as called for in Senate Bill 48.

Senate Bill 48 struck a very delicate balance that responded to increased competition in the telecommunications market while protecting landline basic phone service. The amendment attached to House Bill 542 undermines that balance.

We hope that the Legislature will continue the consumer protections for basic phone service under Senate Bill 48, which became law just last year.

(Alan Linder and Dan Feltes are attorneys at New Hampshire Legal Assistance in Concord. They represent low-income telephone customers before the PUC and in the Legislature.)

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