The PUC's Got Your Number
By Karen Solomon

Cell phone dropping calls constantly? Bills getting as complex as your taxes? Forget fighting with your carrier's customer service rep—do not dial *611, do not pass go. Just call the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) over on Van Ness Avenue.

Yes, the same PUC that was recently eviscerated by the news media for its dodgy dealings during the energy crisis. It's recast its role from toothless regulator to local loudmouth by leading the nation in investigating and penalizing unscrupulous service providers, as well as those that simply can't deliver.

Since 2000, the PUC has reached out and touched MCI, Qwest, and Pac Bell over unfair business practices, shaking them down for tens of millions of dollars in fines—what Commissioner Loretta Lynch calls "the only effective deterrent." Now, the mobile telecoms are a target. After almost 3,000 consumer complaints (on top of low ratings in Consumer Reports, Bay Area Consumers Checkbook, and numerous Cingular Sucks websites and listservs), the PUC launched an investigation into Cingular Wireless, alleging that it sold more service than its system could handle, then penalized unsatisfied customers with contract termination fees of $150 or more. It slapped the company with $12 million in fines. And according to Michael Shames, executive director of consumer watchdog group Utility Consumers' Action Network, the damage could run tens of millions of additional dollars.

Complaints against other mobile telecoms such as Verizon, AT&T Wireless, and Sprint PCS also continue to rise, with consumers complaining of dropped calls, poor reception, or unfair charges. The PUC declined to elaborate on its specific intentions toward the companies, but Lynch says, "I certainly hope to pursue other telecoms; we have evidence against them."

Meanwhile, the PUC has been collaborating with the Consumers Union in Washington, D.C., to create the Telecommunications Bill of Rights. Will this newfound dedication last? Says Shames of the changes, "They may represent some important consumer protections, but they may be the last of a dying breed."