The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the primary government agency tasked with overseeing the massive American telecom industry -- and a report released today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) claims that the FCC is not doing as good a job as it should of protecting consumers.

According to the GAO's survey, "most wireless consumers with problems would not complain to FCC and many do not know where they could complain...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."

The GAO said the FCC lacked specifically defined goals and measurements for any complaint processing efforts it undertakes,and does not do enough to investigate or enforce issues arising from complaints. Consequently, the agency said, the FCC is ill-equipped to recognize potential trends or consumer problems.

Although the FCC receives between 20,000 and 35,000 complaints a year from consumers relating to wireless service, the agency said its chief role was to act as a facilitator between the consumer and the company, and that it lacked direct authority to enforce complaint issues with a carrier. The FCC said it had solicited public comment on how it can improve complaint-adjudication processes, such as including its contact information on billing statements and solicitations sent by carriers for consumers to use.

The GAO had previously reported on the FCC's failure to follow through on addressing its vast database of consumer complaints in March 2008.

Termination fees remain a sore spot

The GAO also found that of the 1,143 wireless customers surveyed, 42 percent would switch their contracts if they did not have to pay a hefty contract termination fee to do so. The agency noted that conflicting rulings at the state and federal level meant there was no clear guidance for how termination fees could be regulated, "thus the issue remains unresolved."

Chris Riley, policy counsel at media watchdog group Free Press, said the report confirmed that carriers were using termination fees to lock customers into long-term contracts, whether they like it or not.

"Consumers are being forced to pay huge fees that the phone companies just can't justify," Riley said. "The FCC must act and put a stop to this anti-consumer practice that threatens innovation and competition in the mobile marketplace."

Other findings

The GAO also found that:

• State regulatory authorities had difficulty addressing wireless customer complaints, because of a tangle of rulings and lack of guidance from the FCC on what authority they have to enforce issues against wireless carriers.

• 34 percent of the wireless customers surveyed received unexpected charges on their bills, and 31 percent said they had difficulty reading their bill accurately.

• 21 percent of those surveyed were dissatisfied with their wireless carrier's customer service response when they wanted to address a problem.