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Cellphone Companies Win on the PUC's Bad Call

Los Angeles Times

We are so lucky, you and I, living in a state that protects the powerless and looks after the downtrodden.

I for one couldn't sleep a wink last night, thinking about how close we came to massacring one vulnerable segment of society, leaving it to the merciless public wolf pack: the poor, defenseless cellphone industry.

Thankfully, that isn't going to happen. The state Public Utilities Commission has suspended what was the nation's first bill of rights for cellphone customers, before it had a chance to get going.

I'm sure that you too will sleep easier knowing that the cellphone companies now won't have the punishing duty of printing their contracts in type that's actually large enough for you to read.

They won't have to suffer the embarrassing exposure of publishing their rates on the Internet. They won't be required to give you 30 days to back out of a contract that weds you to a cellphone service for longer than some people stay married. And they won't even have to explain to you what all those charges are actually for.

California can now look forward to being just like the rest of the nation -- a nation where the Better Business Bureau a couple of years ago ranked cellphone service providers at the top of its complaint list, ahead of credit collection agencies, cable TV companies and even car dealers.

Our governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, ripped away these regulatory chains after six major wireless companies begged him to liberate them from their bondage. Schwarzenegger's PUC silenced the Menshevik consumer-rights types who had spent four years hashing out the compromises for these protections -- I mean, these regulations.

Schwarzenegger worried that these rules would drive telecom jobs out of California. Has he made any technology-related phone service calls lately? Every one I make is already answered by someone in Bangalore, not Burbank.

He's also afraid that the telecoms will stomp out of California and take their cellphones with them. Southern California is the biggest cellphone market in the country. The day the cellular companies decide they can do without California is the day Coppertone starts putting up billboards in Seattle.

Companies that find the regulations too "complex and sweeping" -- in the words of Susan Kennedy, the commissioner leading the charge against them -- should try reading the fine print on their own contracts. What they're really afraid of is that the contagion of democracy -- which is OK for Iraqis but not so good for Californians -- will spread. Imagine if other states got wind of this "consumer bill of rights" idea, if other states insisted that cellphone companies tell the whole truth, legibly.

These folks must learn the autopilot whine in business school: Seat belts? Never! Americans will not pay the thousands of dollars they'll cost! Flameproof children's jammies? Impossible! Why, they'd cost $200 a pair!

Geoffrey Brown, a PUC commissioner since 2001, said in 2004 that "only the most shameless people could object to" the compromise rules he drafted. Now he says suspending those protections is "the most shameful process I've seen in my four years on the commission."

Debra Bowen, the Marina del Rey Democratic state senator who runs the committee that keeps an eye on the PUC, told me that if she asked for a show of hands from cellphone users who trust the industry, "I doubt you could field a basketball team." Bowen is talking about accomplishing by legislation what has been undone by appointees -- a nice thought, but don't put me on hold while I'm waiting for it.

In 2004, just three telecom companies put about 2 million bucks into California political campaigns, half of it coming in the six months after the PUC approved this phone "consumers bill of rights." Whom do you think the pols will look out for, someone who can write those kinds of checks, or a one-vote schmo with a $7 beef on a $40 cellphone bill -- the kind of people who show up for Schwarzenegger's shopping-mall rallies and at the scenes of death and disaster where he hugs people and promises to help them?

I'd give all of those people the commissioners' cellphone numbers if I had them, but instead here's the number for the PUC's consumer affairs branch: (800) 649-7570. Be nice to the folks who answer -- they didn't do this.

And Governor, can you hear us now?