PSC members: Legislation would hurt AT&T customers

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Two Public Service Commission members – from the opposite ends of both the political spectrum and the state – are speaking out against legislation they say will remove their authority to regulate ATamp&T phone service.
Both Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Nettleton Democrat, and Southern District Commissioner Leonard Betz, a Gulf Coast Republican, say the bill would hurt consumers and force customers to go to federal agencies to deal with complaints about phone service.
But House Public Utilities Chair Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, said the intent of the legislation is to put about 30,000 ATamp&T landline customers statewide in the same category as other Mississippi telephone customers.
Still, Beckett said, “You know in this process not many things leave here the way they started,” meaning he is looking at possible changes to the bill to deal with issues raised by various groups.
He added, “You want to make sure there are no unintended consequences. That is what I am doing now.”
But Bentz said the consequence would be to take away from the three-member PSC the authority to help all ATamp&T customers with any phone complaints.
“I guess if a consumer had a complaint they could call the Federal Communications Commission,” Bentz said. “If ATamp&T can explain to me how this bill will build better customer service by calling a Washington bureaucrat versus an elected Mississippian, I will be their biggest cheerleader.”
Beckett said the intent is to further the deregulation the state undertook in 2006. Under current law, Beckett said, landlines are not regulated if there is competition with the exception of about 30,000. He said those landlines are for basic service, which includes no added features, such as caller ID or call waiting. He said half of those lines are to businesses – most to fax machies. But others say many elderly people have the basic lines and would be affected by the bill.
Mayo Flynt, state president of ATamp&T, said the requirement that his company provide the service to the 30,000 customers puts his company at a competitive disadvantage. It is now more costly to provide basic service that does not even include long distance.
“It doesn’t make sense to have one company with an obligation others don’t have,” Flynt said.
Regulation removal
Beckett said the bill would not remove regulation of the small independent phone companies, such as in Bruce and Fulton. Since they do not have competition, they would still be under the PSC authority.
“This bill simply recognizes that the phone business is a competitive business and should be dealt with as a competitive business and not as a monopoly,” Beckett said.
But Presley said the 2006 deregulation already has had a negative impact on consumers. He said complaints to the PSC about poor phone service have jumped from 1,735 in 2006 to 4,361 in 2011.
He said the legislation would remove what little leverage the PSC has to try to ensure telephone companies respond to consumer complaints.
The bill, Flynt said, would put into law other areas where the PSC would not have regulatory authority, such as for wireless services and video phone services, such as Skype.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com