California's Public Utilites Commission has adopted a "Telecommunications Consumer Bill of Rights" that gives new cell phone subscribers 30 days to cancel the service without paying a penalty.
"These are landmark rules for California and ensure that telecommunications consumers are afforded basic rights when dealing with telecommunications companies," said Commissioner Geoffrey F. Brown, the measure's sponsor.
Brown said the bill gives consumers "fundamental, non-controversial rights ... such as having a due date printed on their bills or to credit a payment on the business day received, required negotiation with the industry."
California is the first state in the nation to approve specific regulations protecting cell phone users. The vote to approve the measure was 3-2.
Other changes include requiring all rates and other services terms to be posted on the Internet; requiring key contract terms to be in readable type, not fine print; and requiring carriers to list the address and toll-free number of regulators to make it easier for customers to file complaints.
• Full disclosure Carriers must disclose all details of the service agreement on their Web site and must post their current tariffs, any pending changes to the tariffs, key rates, terms and conditions on the Internet. Service offerings for which there are current customers, but which are no longer available to others, must be clearly indicated as such.
Carriers must also provide the address and toll-free telephone number of the PUC's Consumer Affairs Branch and a toll-free number and address for the carrier that the consumer can call or write to reach the carrier regarding inquiries, disputes, and complaints related to the bill or to any other aspect of the customers' service.
Carriers must also provide a description of customers' privacy rights and how the carrier handles confidential consumer information and information regarding state and federal laws that protect the privacy rights of residential telephone consumers with respect to telephone solicitations.
• Marketing practices Any solicitation offer by a carrier that is deceptive, untrue, or misleading is prohibited. Statements, in any form, about rates and services that are deceptive, untrue, or misleading are prohibited. Any written authorization for service must be a separate document from any solicitation materials, and such written authorization may not constitute entry forms for sweepstakes, contests, or any other program that offers prizes or gifts. All terms of any written confirmation, authorization, order, agreement, or contract must be unambiguous and legible, and written in a minimum of 10-point type.
Service initiation and changes Carriers must provide their consumers with a written confirmation of their order at the point of sale for in-person transactions. The confirmation must be in a minimum of 10-point type and must include the key rates, terms and conditions for each service ordered.
Carriers must also allow consumers to cancel without termination fees or penalties any new service within 30 days after the new service is initiated. This does not relieve a consumer from payment for use during the period prior to canceling.
Carriers must also offer a four-hour or shorter period for appointments to establish or repair service that the consumer must be present for.
• Billing Bills must be clearly organized and may only contain charges for products and services authorized by the consumer. Where charges for two or more carriers appear on the same telephone bill, the charges must be separated by service provider. This rule does not apply to wireless roaming charges. All mandated government taxes, surcharges, and fees required to be collected from consumers and to be remitted to federal, state, or local governments must be listed in a separate section of the telephone bill entitled "Government Fees and Taxes," and all such charges must be separately itemized.
• Late-payment penalties, backbilling, and prorating Carriers must credit payments effective the business day payments are received by the carrier or its agent. The date after which a bill is considered overdue and delinquent, and after which late charges may accrue, must not be earlier than 22 days after the date the bill was mailed. Any authorized late-payment penalty may not exceed 1.5 percent per month on the balance overdue.
Tariff changes, contract changes Carriers must notify all affected consumers at least 25 days in advance of every proposed change in its consumers' service agreements or non-term contracts that may result in higher rates or charges or more restrictive terms or conditions.
The complete text of the new rules is available on the PUC's Web site.
Opponents say the rules will create new layers of bureaucracy and impose new costs that will be passed on to consumers. The wireless industry has estimated the price increases triggered by the rules could range from $4 to $17 per month.
The commission said it received more than 5,000 complaints from California consumers last year about wireless companies.