New consumer protection language added to telecom bill

In a nod to Gov. Sonny Perdue, the state Senate amended a high-profile telecommunications bill Tuesday before approving it and kicking it back to the House.

The change appears to restore the state Public Service Commission’s ability to resolve consumer complaints related to AT&T’s land-line phone business.

Current state law says the PSC can “resolve” those complaints. HB 168 had said that the commission could “receive” those complaints.

Both the PSC and Perdue’s office believed the change weakened the commission’s ability to act on consumers’ behalf.

Tuesday’s amended version said that HB 168 won’t “restrict any authority of the Public Service Commission with regard to consumer complaints.”

Of the $323,237 in credits and refunds the PSC got for consumers of all utilities last year, nearly half -- or $145,650 -- went to AT&T customers, according to the commission.

Both the governor's office and the PSC are reviewing the bill's new language.

HB 168 is a complicated telecommunications overhaul backed by AT&T and the state’s rural phone companies.

The cable industry opposes it.

The bill lifts most remaining state regulation of AT&T. It also requires the rural phone companies to slash “access fees” they charge carriers such as AT&T to connect into their systems.

It creates a subsidy funded by AT&T and the state’s cable companies to ease the pain of those cuts.

And it continues another state subsidy to rural phone companies -- that has been in place for 15 years -- for up to 20 more years if the fund’s recipients agree to more state regulation.

HB 168 first passed the House last year. At the time, it simply cut the older rural subsidy.

It took on its current form in the Senate this year and was rocketing forward until Perdue signaled his concerns in March.