Telecom advocacy at top of agenda – National Consumers League

NCL staff has been busy at the Federal Communications Commission lately. From comments on inmate calling rates, to the new FCC chair and activity on wireless cramming, telecom and technology issues remain an area of focus for the League.


Inmate calling rates

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2011 there were nearly 1.6 million Americans incarcerated in federal or state correctional facilities. For many of these prisoners, a phone call to loved ones is an important way to stay in touch during a difficult time. Regular contact with loved ones is an important contributing factor to reducing recidivism rates as well. 

Unfortunately, thanks to exclusive agreements between correctional facilities and inmate calling service (ICS) providers, the cost of this regular contact can be prohibitive for many families, particular those on limited incomes. Inmate communications are typically limited to collect calling from prison payphones that often carry exorbitant rates, a portion of which is paid to the correction facility.

In April, NCL joined a coalition of prisoner advocacy, civil rights, public interest and business groups in calling on the FCC to cap these rates. “Having a loved one incarcerated already places severe strain on families,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “Being hit with the double whammy of extremely high calling rates to communicate with that loved one only exacerbates that strain. We applaud the FCC for considering this important issue and urge the Commission to institute common-sense rate caps that will allow inmates and their families to affordably stay in touch.”

Calling for public interest advocate for next FCC Chair

On March 22, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that he would be stepping down as chair. FCC Chair that brings extensive public interest expertise to the position. “Any consumer who has opened their mobile phone or cable bill in recent years understands the importance of having an FCC chair that is on their side,” said NCL’s Sally Greenberg in a blog posting about the issue. “While the Obama Administration will undoubtedly consider a number of worthy candidates, we believe that the next FCC chair should have significant experience in public interest advocacy.”

Wireless cramming heating up this spring

In 2012, NCL led a coalition of public interest groups in urging the FCC to protect consumers from cramming fraud. “Cramming,” the placement of unauthorized charges on phone bills, has long been a pernicious scam affecting millions of consumers. Thanks in part to NCL’s advocacy the biggest phone companies in the country announced that they would voluntarily cease providing billing to so-called “enhanced” services on landline phone bills – a change that has had a significant impact on reducing fraud rates.

Unfortunately, it looks like the scam artists may simply be shifting their cons to wireless bill. NCL is not sitting idly by. In May, NCL Vice President John Breyault presented at a Federal Trade Commission roundtable on the issue. We expect that this issue will continue to percolate in Washington in Congress, at the FCC and the FTC. NCL will continue to call for stronger consumer protections in this area so that the massive fraud that affected landline telephone bills gets nipped in the bud before it gets out of control on wireless bills.

Protecting workers, customer service in T-Mobile/MetroPCS merger

As the FCC considered the merger of wireless companies T-Mobile and MetroPCS, NCL joined with a coalition of labor and civil rights groups in calling for the FCC to consider the merger’s impact on jobs. In comments filed at the FCC in December, the groups called for merger conditions that would protect jobs at the combined company and ensure that customer service didn’t suffer as a result of the deal. NCL, along with the other coalition members stated that we were “deeply concerned that the evidence in the record and the Applicants’ practice of sending work offshore will result in significant post-merger job loss and harm to the quality of service provided to customers as a result of staffing cuts.”