TRA collects $625,320 in refunds for consumers after investigation

By Bob Robinson
Star STAFF

   The Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA) collected $351,200 in fines for rule violations and obtained $625,320 in refunds for consumers in 2000.
   In addition, telemarketing companies have paid a total of $61,000 in settlements and fines for violating Tennessee's "Do Not Call" list statute.
   On Tuesday, at the next meeting of TRA directors, another telemarketing company faces a fine of $12,000 for a similar violation.
   Since August 2000, when Tennessee's "Do Not Call" program began, 1,200 complaints have been filed with TRA, according to Eddie Roberson, TRA chief of consumer services.
   Today, nearly 644,000 residential telephone numbers in Tennessee are on the "Do Not Call" list, Roberson said.
   Once telephone customers in Tennessee are added to the TRA "Do Not Call" list, it lasts five years.
   To either register a consumer complaint or request your name be added to the "Do Not Call" list in Tennessee, contact TRA at 1-800-342-8359. Their Web site is www.state.tn.us/tra.
   Over the years, TRA oversight has grown in proportion to the number of new entrants into the telecommunications market in Tennessee.
   Today, TRA regulates more than 500 local and long distance telecommunications companies in Tennessee.
   In the past year, TRA authorized 90 new companies, called CLECs, to offer "competitive" local telephone service, an increase of 196 percent over the previous year.
   This translates into a need for more TRA staff to handle an increased workload, including tariff filings and resolution of consumer complaints.
   TRA investigates and resolves consumer complaints filed against companies they regulate.
   TRA does not regulate companies that provide wireless, paging or Internet services.
   In addition, TRA does not presently regulate "customer service," that is, a place where customers call to request assistance.
   Today, many companies use an interactive voice response system (IVR), which plays prerecorded messages, when customers call the published "customer service number" to request assistance.
   Some companies, such as AT&T Long Distance, do not have a zero default with their IVR system to allow callers to speak to someone.
   "One gets in IVR jail and stays there," one frustrated consumer said recently.
   This could change, however, if new proposed rules are adopted by TRA directors in the near future.
   Eddie Roberson, TRA chief of consumer services, said the "new rules pertain to the speed with which customer calls are answered, call block rates and amount of time customers are placed on hold or placed in cue."
   A hearing on the proposed rules was held several months ago. Industry comments, objecting to the proposed rules, were filed with TRA.
   TRA directors Sarah Kyle, Lynn Greer and Melvin Malone are now deliberating whether or not to adopt the proposed "customer service" rules to better serve consumers in Tennessee.
   The proposed rules appear on the TRA Web site under "electronic file room, rules and regulations, telephone service standards."
   To file a complaint for TRA investigation, consumers must complete a brief complaint form, describing the nature of the complaint and enclosing a copy of their telecommunications bill in dispute.
   Next, TRA sends a copy of the complaint to the company, which must respond to the TRA within 10 days.
   Usually, the company resolves the complaint quickly, according to the TRA.
   Why some companies don't resolve the matter with their customer without the necessity of a TRA complaint having to be filed is anybody's guess.
   Typical complaints investigated by the TRA include slamming (an unauthorized change in a local or long distance service provider), billing and refund disputes and installation delays.
   Since deregulation of the telecommunications industry was initiated by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1995, there has been a proliferation of telecommunications providers.
   The State Telecommunications Act, in part, introduced local telephone competition in areas served by incumbents with more than 100,000 telephone access lines.
   In the past six years, new companies in Tennessee offered various types of services previously provided by a regulated monopoly.
   Among them:
   * Competitive local exchange carriers, called CLECs, compete with incumbent local telephone companies in Tennessee, called ILECs;
   * Long distance service providers;
   * Long distance resellers who purchase and then resell long distance services;
   * Customer owned coin telephone service, typically pay phones which are not provided by ILECs; and,
   * A multitude of Internet, paging and wireless companies not regulated by TRA.
   There are 19 ILECs, including 10 investor-owned telephone companies and nine telephone cooperatives, serving 92 percent of the 3.7 million telephone lines in Tennessee.
   CLECs serve 6 percent of the total telephone lines in Tennessee.
   Since 1995, CLECs have invested half a billion dollars in telecommunications facilities in Tennessee, according to the TRA.
   Bell South, the largest ILEC, serves approximately 73 percent of the telephone lines in Tennessee, followed by Sprint/United with seven percent, all in Northeast Tennessee.
   Today, telephone cooperatives, which are not regulated by TRA, and 17 other ILECs serve 12 percent of the telephone lines in Tennessee. CLECs and resellers serve the remaining eight percent of the lines.
   The TRA has authorized more than 300 companies to provide long distance service in Tennessee. However, AT&T, MCI and Sprint control 88 percent of Tennessee's long distance market, according to TRA.
   For complaints not handled by TRA, consumers may contact the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs (DCA) at 1-800-342-8385. Their Web site is www.state.tn.us/consumer.
   Under Tennessee's Consumer Protection Act, consumers have one year from the time they found out about a deceptive act or practice and no more than four years from the time the deceptive act or practice occurred to file legal action.