On Thursday, July 26, 2007, the CPUC held its regularly-scheduled agenda meeting. The meeting was brief, and the Commissioners breezed through the agenda without controversy. The main item of interest on the telecommunications agenda was the decision adopting rules for carriers to follow in dealing with Limited English Proficiency customers. This and other telecommunications-related items on the agenda are described in detail below.
REGULAR AND CONSENT AGENDA ITEMS
Rules Passed Governing Carriers Interactions with Limited English Proficiency Customers (Item 31, adopted 5-0) — This decision sets forth rules that carriers must follow in their interactions with customers who have limited English proficiency. These “in language” rules are based on the principle that when carriers market their services to Limited English Proficiency (LEP) customer in a language other than English, those carriers should be prepared to offer certain basic disclosures and customer services in that non-English language. There are a variety of nuances in the marketing “trigger,” as the rules are not triggered by brand advertising, customer-initiated calls, or unauthorized “in language” contacts. Prepaid wireless services and services offered on a business or wholesale basis are wholly excluded from the rules. Where the rules are triggered, carriers must provide “in language” customer support, and they must translate all Commission-mandated notices into the languages in which “in language” marketing occurred. Carriers must also provide “in language” information about services purchased, and the decision gives carriers a variety of mechanisms through which this information can be provided.
Commissioner Peevey introduced this item, noting that he was doing so with “significant pleasure.” Peevey described the basic philosophy underlying the decision, which is that carrier marketing “in language” should trigger certain customer service and disclosure obligations. Peevey highlighted the decision’s sensitivity to the “diverse range and nature of carriers.” The “in language” service confirmation requirement can be satisfied in a number of ways, including through the use of interactive voice response systems and carrier website. Peevey also explained that prepaid wireless services are exempt from the rules, since the nature of these businesses is such that compliance with the rules would be unreasonably difficult, and since LEP customers are subject to less financial risk in connection with these services. Peevey emphasized the many proceedings that led up to this decision, including workshops and public participation hearings. In closing, Peevey championed the decision as an unprecedented and forward-looking step that has not yet been implemented by other states, and that is a “major step in the right direction.”
The other Commissioners also expressed support for the decision. Commissioner Chong referenced her Chinese background, and stated that diversity in California is “one of the state’s greatest strengths.” She also underscored the importance of telecommunications services to immigrant families, stating that these services often provide these families only connection to people “back home.” Chong described these rules as “striking a fair balance” between providing information to LEP customers, and avoiding burdens on carriers. Overly burdensome rules could have been “so overzealous that carriers could dictate English only policies.” Similarly, Commissioner Bohn observed that “the flexibility that is built into this system is important because it does not inhibit the solutions that people will come up with on the ground to get the job done.”
Commissioner Grueneich’s support for the adopted rules was more measured. She stated that she would support the decision because “it’s time.” Notwithstanding her general support, she believes that the decision is lacking in several areas. Grueneich expressed her disappointment that the decision does not include language tracking requirements, contract cancellation remedies, or “clear enforcement protocols.” To remedy these perceived defects, Grueneich believes that the Commission should move swiftly in Phase II of the proceeding to examine these issues, starting with the “feasibility of applicable carriers reporting complaints to the Commission.”
Commissioner Simon concluded the Commissioner remarks by putting the rules in a broader context. He observed that 95% of all Californians now live in areas where some “in language” services are being offered. He praised carriers for their significant efforts to reach out to the LEP community and to provide services designed to help LEP individuals understand their telecommunications service options. While Simon supports the adopted rules, he admitted that he was concerned with the original proposed rules, since their paternalistic approach ran the risk of “belittling” LEP consumers “as victims.” He emphasized that LEP consumers are “not powerless,” and that the Commission should take care not to offend LEP individuals in the manner in which it approaches this issue. Simon’s statement underscored the importance of carefully defining the needs of LEP communities, and responding to those needs without offending the LEP community or imposing unreasonable burdens on industry. In closing, Simon also observed that the trigger for the rules should not be interpreted to impose a “gag order” on “in language” discussions by multi-lingual individuals.
Following this discussion, the decision was adopted unanimously. An earlier draft of the decision is attached as a reference at following link: http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/word_pdf/AGENDA_DECISION/70606.doc.
Verizon Granted Authority to Withdraw from Centralized Credit Check System (Item 14, adopted on consent agenda) — This decision grants Verizon’s request to withdraw from participation in the Centralized Credit Check System (CCCS). The CCCS was put in place in 1985 to create a systematic mechanism for the seven largest incumbent local exchange carriers to identify new customers who may be credit risks based on records of unpaid balances that those customers have with other carriers within the CCCS group. Although Verizon was a member of the CCCS since its inception, it is no longer relying on CCCS data in making credit decisions, nor is it charging deposits for any residential customers in California. As a result, Verizon’s participation in the CCCS is no longer cost-effective. This decision grants Verizon’s request to withdraw from the CCCS. A similar request by Sierra Telephone was approved in 1989. The most recent draft of this decision is attached at the following link: http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/word_pdf/AGENDA_DECISION/70600.doc.
RCN Telecom CPCN Temporarily Restored (Item 22, adopted on consent agenda) — This decision grants RCN’s request to temporarily restore its CPCN to provide wholesale local exchange and interexchange services. This restoration is necessary to ensure that the transition of customers from RCN to Astound Communications in the former RCN Northern California system will occur without customer interruption. The Commission previously approved the takeover of RCN by Astound, and recently the Commission approved the voluntary withdrawal of RCN’s CPCN. RCN’s CPCN was scheduled to terminate on June 1, 2007. Astound is having difficulties completing all of the interconnection and systems changes that are necessary to facilitate the customer transition from RCN to Astound. The parties had originally believed that they would be able to complete the transition before the full expiration of RCN’s authority. This decision will give the parties enough time to complete a full and smooth transition. When the transition is complete, RCN’s CPCN will be subject to termination by advice letter. The final decision resolving this item is attached at the followingk link: http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/word_pdf/FINAL_DECISION/70625.doc.
Chong and Bohn Granted Authority to File Concurrence to Recent Decision Fining Cox and AT&T For Improper “Ex Parte” Contacts (Item 33, adopted on consent agenda) — During the Commission’s last meeting, the Commission approved a decision fining AT&T and Cox for improperly communicating with Commissioner advisors regarding matters in a pending complaint case. Commissioners Bohn and Chong were part of the majority that endorsed the decision, but this item clarifies that they will be filing concurrences.