Utilities Commission: Telephone Problems Fixed In 72 Hours or Free Month Service

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Telephone companies would have to make repairs within 72 hours or give customers a month's credit and users would have a 30-day window in which to cancel new services under rules state regulators approved Wednesday.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio revisited its minimum service standards for phone companies for the first time since 2001. The commission's order affects only land-line users; the PUCO does not regulate cell phone service.

Currently, phone companies are required to provide credit on a sliding scale if an outage lasts from 20 to 96 hours, with a month's credit mandated after 96 hours. The new rule requires the month's credit after 72 hours, but there is no penalty for a shorter outage.

Phone companies still are expected restore service within 24 hours. If a provider shows a pattern of taking longer than that, the commission could take action against it, commission spokeswoman Shana Eiselstein said. Penalties could include fines.

Customers also would have 30 days to cancel new services they ordered, such as call-waiting and Caller ID. Companies now can sell the services by a telephone order, but under the new rules they are required to send people who order new services a "welcome letter" explaining the services, pricing and terms of service.

Other standards include requiring companies to give customers a four-hour window for a service call and 24 hours' notice of a cancellation; a fee of no more than the price of two postage stamps for payments through authorized agents; at least seven days' notice for cancellation of service; and priority restoration service during emergency outages for customers with medical or life-threatening conditions. "For the most part they remain the same," Eiselstein said. "There was really just an attempt to streamline some of the rules."

The new rules allow phone companies to pitch new services to customers calling about anything other than a payment arrangement or an outage and "they can get the sales pitch before they get any service," said Janine Migden-Ostrander, the Ohio Consumers'

Counsel. Her state agency represents residential customers in rate cases. "Probably on the whole, the customers are less-better served than they were before this," Migden-Ostrander said. She also objected to the elimination of bill credits before an outage lasts 72 hours. She said if the commission expects service within 24 hours, it should have made credit mandatory after 24hours. She was pleased, however, by the cap on what payment agents can charge and the priority for restoring service to customers who have medical conditions.

Caryn Candisky, a spokeswoman for AT&T, the state's largest phone company with 3.4 million lines, said she had not seen the commission's order but feels it fell short in removing barriers that competition should be allowed to solve. "It appears that enough changes were not made to update the rules to reflect the competitive marketplace we are in," Candisky said.