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FCC enhances online complaint services for consumers

The only problem with muttering angrily at your cat when your cable bill suddenly spikes is that it does nothing to lower your costs.

But the Federal Communications Commission is here to try to help save both your sanity and your pride: Those federal regulators have rolled out a new way for the American public to let the agency quickly and easily know about everything from unfair cable bills to telephone service outages to offenses taken to Tom Brady’s silent use of the F-word through a new online complaint center.

The FCC has long had a phone line for capturing citizens’ grievances – 1-888-CALL-FCC – and some rudimentary online filing capabilities. But the benefits of the new system include the ability for consumers with complaints to track the resolution of their issue the same way they might track a FedEx package. Under agreements with the federal government, telecom providers like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast have 30 days to respond to a customer problem.

But the new system will start the clock earlier: Instead of new complaints being fed directly into those companies’ resolution systems once a week, the new complaint center will kick them over within the day.

The complaints that come in through the new system will be aggregated for easier analysis by federal regulators. “The hope,” said an FCC official only authorized to speak on background, “is to have consumers inform us where we can best serve them and where the FCC should be focusing its attention.” Giving the public more powerful ways to lodge complaints, says the official, was part of Chairman Tom Wheeler’s mandate when he took office in 2013.

The FCC’s digital infrastructure has sometimes struggled, most notably with its online mechanism for collecting public comments on pressing policy questions called the Electronic Comment Filing System, or ECFS. That framework was unable to keep up with the weight of the more than 4 million public comments on the issue of net neutrality that hit the agency this summer.

The new complaint system is part of a trend among federal agencies. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for example, has made a point of making its complaint process transparent and public, partly in a bid to discourage financial companies from engaging in behavior that might rack up consumer objections.

The FCC is also considering releasing back to the public more granular complaint data. Top-level data from the new system’s test period shows that the majority of complaints had to do with telephone service, and the majority of those had to do with being bothered by telemarketers.

In the future, that complaint data could become a powerful ally for telecom policy advocates. At the moment, they are often reduced to trawling through user forums on company websites to gather hard information on, for example, who’s having buffering issues as they try watching Netflix. In the future, that data might be readily available on FCC.gov.

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