Telecommunications:

FCC Needs to Improve Oversight of Wireless Phone Service

GAO-10-34: Published: Nov 10, 2009. Publicly Released: Dec 10, 2009.

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Americans increasingly rely on wireless phones, with 35 percent of households now primarily or solely using them. Under federal law, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for fostering a competitive wireless marketplace while ensuring that consumers are protected from harm. States also have authority to oversee some aspects of service. As requested, this report discusses consumers' satisfaction and problems with wireless phone service and FCC's and state utility commissions' efforts to oversee this service. To conduct this work, Government Accountability Office (GAO) surveyed 1,143 adult wireless phone users from a nationally representative, randomly selected sample; surveyed all state utility commissions; and interviewed and analyzed documents obtained from FCC and stakeholders representing consumers, state agencies and officials, and the industry.

Based on a GAO survey of adult wireless phone users, an estimated 84 percent of users are very or somewhat satisfied with their wireless phone service. Stakeholders GAO interviewed cited billing, terms of the service contract, carriers' explanation of their service at the point of sale, call quality, and customer service as key aspects of wireless phone service with which consumers have experienced problems in recent years. The survey results indicate that most users are very or somewhat satisfied with each of these key aspects of service, but that the percentages of those very or somewhat dissatisfied with these aspects range from about 9 to 14 percent. GAO's survey results and analysis of FCC complaint data also indicate that some wireless phone service consumers have experienced problems with billing, certain contract terms, and customer service. While the percentages of dissatisfied users appear small, given the widespread use of wireless phones, these percentages represent millions of consumers. FCC receives tens of thousands of wireless consumer complaints each year and forwards them to carriers for response, but has conducted little other oversight of services provided by wireless phone service carriers because the agency has focused on promoting competition. However, GAO's survey results suggest that most wireless consumers with problems would not complain to FCC and many do not know where they could complain. FCC also lacks goals and measures that clearly identify the intended outcomes of its complaint processing efforts. Consequently, FCC cannot demonstrate the effectiveness of its efforts to process complaints. Additionally, without knowing to complain to FCC or what outcome to expect if they do, consumers with problems may be confused about where to get help and about what kind of help is available. FCC monitors wireless consumer complaints, but such efforts are limited. Lacking in-depth analysis of its consumer complaints, FCC may not be aware of emerging trends in consumer problems, if specific rules are being violated, or if additional rules are needed to protect consumers. FCC has rules regarding billing, but has conducted no enforcement of these rules as they apply to wireless carriers. This August, FCC sought public comment about ways to better protect and inform wireless consumers. In response to GAO's survey, most state commissions reported receiving and processing wireless phone service consumer complaints; however, fewer than half reported having rules that apply to wireless phone service. Stakeholders said that states' authority to regulate wireless service under federal law is unclear, leading, in some cases, to costly legal proceedings and reluctance in some states to provide oversight. FCC has provided some guidance on this issue but has not fully resolved disagreement over states' authority to regulate billing line items and fees charged for terminating service early. State commissions surveyed indicated that communication with FCC about wireless phone service oversight is infrequent. As such, FCC is missing opportunities to partner with state agencies in providing effective oversight and to share information on wireless phone service consumer concerns.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness and accountability of FCC's efforts to oversee wireless phone service, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should direct the commission to clearly inform consumers that they may complain to FCC about problems with wireless phone service and what they can expect as potential outcomes from this process, and expand FCC's outreach to consumers about these efforts.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Open

    Comments: In its February 5, 2010 response, FCC noted it is formulating a coordinated effort to better inform consumers about how to file complaints with the agency. The letter further noted that FCC is considering requiring wireless carriers to include information in customers' bills about how to contact FCC. The agency released a Notice of Inquiry on August 9, 2009, seeking public comment on this proposal, as well as recommendations for other possible consumer education initiatives. The letter also noted that FCC is working to improve its website, including improving how the site informs consumers about the complaint process and to make submitting complaints through the site easier. In response to our report's finding that FCC has not made clear what consumers can expect from FCC when they file complaints, the letter states that FCC is developing options for handling consumers' requests for mediation while clearly communicating with consumers what these options will be and what they can expect from FCC. In June 2011, FCC stated that the proceeding begun in August 2009 remains ongoing. In May 2012, FCC stated that in April 2012, FCC launched a new consumer education website about wireless billing problems, specifically what to do when customers have unexpected charges from exceeding their plan allotments. The site includes information on how to complain to FCC, but does not include information on what consumers can expect will result from doing so. In August 2013, FCC stated the agency is considering a proposal for comprehensive reform of the consumer complaint process. This proposal includes more clearly explaining outcomes of the complaint process to consumers. There is no timeline for implementing this proposal, as it is still under consideration and has not been funded. We will continue to follow up with FCC about its efforts.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness and accountability of FCC's efforts to oversee wireless phone service, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should direct the commission to develop goals and related measures for FCC's informal complaint-handing efforts that clearly articulate intended outcomes and address important dimensions of performance.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Open

    Comments: In its February 5, 2010 response, FCC stated that it would consider establishing meaningful and measurable outcome-based standards in the context of its efforts to reassess goals for the mediation of informal consumer complaints. FCC noted that it already has basic performance metrics for responding to consumer complaints in a timely manner and will examine ways to automate such responses and provide them by email, which may be more efficient than processing these complaints manually and mailing a paper response. In June 2011, FCC stated it had taken steps to improve its complaint-handling efforts by increasing staff training and beginning an effort to revise its complaint coding and intake process, which it expects to complete by the end of fiscal year 2011. FCC also stated it is considering other enhancements for fiscal year 2012. However, this response did not mention any direct action in response to the recommendation. In May 2012, FCC stated it had begun an effort to improve its informal complaint-handling, including revising its complaint intake and coding procedures with an emphasis on collecting information to enhance policymaking and compliance activities. The response did not specifically mention goals and measures, but said the effort was ongoing and expected to continue through the end of 2012. In August 2013, FCC stated it is considering a proposal for comprehensive reform to its consumer complaint process. The agency hopes to institute performance measures for the consumer complaint process as part of the reform.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness and accountability of FCC's efforts to oversee wireless phone service, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should direct the commission to develop and implement policies and procedures for conducting documented monitoring and analysis of consumer complaints in order to help the agency identify trends and emerging issues and determine whether carriers are complying with existing rules or whether new rules may be needed to protect consumers.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Open

    Comments: In its February 5, 2010 response, FCC noted that since May 2007, the agency has been working to improve its ability to monitor and analyze consumer complaints. At that time, the agency began a phased implementation of a new Consumer Complaint Management System, which it has already used to analyze complaints about specific consumer issues. FCC is working to develop a plan to use the system for proactively identifying new trends and consumer concerns. FCC also plans to deploy a new enforcement database to better manage complaints electronically while improving the ability to run targeted reports and measure performance. Additionally, FCC has contacted the Federal Trade Commission to share information and expertise on handling and analyzing complaints. In June 2011, FCC further stated it has taken steps to improve its complaint-handling process, including revising its system for complaint coding and intake, which it expects to complete by the end of fiscal year 2011. Although FCC has taken some steps to address the recommendation by making changes to its consumer complaint handling, it has not yet completed actions to fulfill the intent of the recommendation. In May 2012, FCC stated it had begun an effort to improve its informal complaint-handling, including revising its complaint intake and coding procedures with an emphasis on collecting information to enhance policymaking and compliance activities. As part of this effort, FCC is considering updating its user interface. The response said this effort is expected to continue through the end of 2012. In August 2013, FCC stated that the agency is considering comprehensive reform to its consumer complaint process. At that time, FCC stated that consumer complaints were monitored by the FCC Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau and, if warranted, shared with other bureaus if they relate to an emerging issue the other bureaus have identified and shared with Consumer and Government Affairs.

    Recommendation: To better ensure a systemwide focus in providing oversight of wireless phone service and improve FCC's partnership with state agencies that also oversee this service, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should direct the commission to develop and issue guidance delineating federal and state authority to regulate wireless phone service, including pulling together prior rulings on this issue; addressing the related open proceedings on truth-in-billing and early termination fees; and, if needed, seeking appropriate statutory authority from Congress.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Open

    Comments: In its February 5, 2010 response, FCC noted that the Notice of Inquiry on Consumer Information and Disclosure it released on August 9, 2009, provides an opportunity for the agency to review prior rulings and related open proceedings. The response also stated that FCC's Wireless Bureau and Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau are working together to review areas of the Communications Act where clarification is needed regarding state and federal roles for oversight of wireless phone service. In June 2011, FCC stated that it was continuing to hold regular meetings with associations representing state agency officials, but did not mention taking any action to directly address the recommendation. In May 2012, FCC stated that the topic of wireless regulation is discussed during intergovernmental webinars FCC hosts with state and local government offices, but did not indicate it had developed and issued guidance as called for in the recommendation. In August 2013, FCC stated that it has not issued any formal guidance on delineating federal and state wireless oversight authority.

    Recommendation: To better ensure a systemwide focus in providing oversight of wireless phone service and improve FCC's partnership with state agencies that also oversee this service, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should direct the commission to develop and implement policies and procedures for communicating with states about wireless phone service oversight.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we surveyed state utility commissions about their efforts to oversee wireless phone service and found that state commissions reported that communication with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about wireless phone service oversight was infrequent. Federal law gives FCC responsibility for regulating wireless service competition and protecting consumers from certain harms; however, states also retain some authority under federal law to regulate wireless phone service and many states also process consumer complaints. Lacking such communication between FCC and the states, we concluded that FCC was missing opportunities to partner with state agencies in providing effective oversight and to share information on wireless phone service consumer concerns. We recommended that FCC better ensure a systemwide focus in providing oversight of wireless phone service and improve FCC's partnership with state agencies that also oversee this service by developing and implementing policies and procedures for communicating with states about wireless phone service oversight. In February 2010, FCC stated it planned to use several of its existing methods of communicating with state officials and national organizations to coordinate and improve wireless service oversight. Specifically, FCC intended to include discussion of wireless service oversight in its regular meetings with state agencies and national organizations representing state agencies. In June 2011, FCC stated that it was continuing to hold regular meetings with associations representing state agency officials, including conducting regular webinars, monthly phone conferences, and in-person meetings with state officials that oversee wireless phone service. In subsequent years, FCC continued holding these webinars on a twice-yearly basis. According to FCC, the two most recent webinars to share information with states were held in September 2012 and June 2013. FCC stated that wireless regulation is a topic of these meetings.

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