New rules for landlines

Starting next month, just getting your phone bill mailed by the due date won't be good enough anymore.

But you will have the right to get your monthly bill on paper and phone company salespeople will have to give you an estimate for your total monthly bill, not just the basic service charge.

Those are some of the provisions in new telephone billing standards being implemented by the Kansas Corporation Commission. For most companies, the new rules take effect Jan. 12.

Five years in the making, the new standards replace rules that were established in the early 1980s, said Vicki Buening, the commission's director of communications and consumer affairs.

"This is to bring the standards up to date and address technology and changes in the industry," Buening said.

Substantial changes in the rules include:

* Bill due dates — Until now, customers were presumed to have paid on time if their payment was postmarked by the date it was due. The new standards allow a phone company to consider a payment to be late — regardless of when it was mailed — if it isn't received by the company before the due date.

* Paper bills — Customers will have the right to receive a paper bill each month and phone companies cannot charge extra for that. In cases where an old bill is in dispute, the company has to provide a paper copy or ensure the customer has access to an electronic copy.

* Surcharge disclosure — In addition to the basic service and usage charges, phone bills carry a number of surcharges. Some are for taxes and fees levied by the government, while other surcharges are added to bills by phone companies to offset their internal business expenses. The new rules will require that government charges and company charges be listed on separate parts of the bill and clearly labeled.

* Service shutdown — The commission changed the rules for disconnecting basic phone customers who do not have bundled packages of telecommunications services. Customers who separately purchase their basic phone service can't be shut off for failing to pay other bills such as equipment purchases or television service. However, in a change from the old rules, companies will be able to shut down a customer's local service if they fail to pay their long-distance bill.

The new rules apply only to landline service. Wireless phone companies will continue to operate under less-stringent federal regulations.

The new state rules are "a mixed bag" for consumers, who gained some rights and lost others, said Steve Rarrick, a lawyer for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, the state agency that represents residential and small-business utility customers.

He said the biggest victory for consumers is that the commission turned down a proposal to eliminate state regulations and rely on federal rules, which are far less protective of customers.

"The best thing is, something really bad didn't happen," Rarrick said.

Rarrick said CURB fought unsuccessfully against the change in regulations on bill due dates because it shifts the risk of delayed mail from the phone company to the customer.

"Our point was you don't have any control over how long it takes the post office to get it there," Rarrick said. "You really have no way to control, no way to verify, when it's received."

The change could result in customers who make a good-faith effort to pay on time getting hit with late fees, he said.

Buening said the commission changed the rule because phone companies argued that it was too much trouble to preserve the postmarked envelopes to determine whether the payment was mailed by the due date.

In one of its legal filings in the case, AT&T, the state's dominant phone company, argued that "reliance upon a postmark to determine when a payment is delinquent is not feasible for AT&T due, in part, to its mechanized billing payment process."

Hiring people to manually review postmarks would cost the company $600,000 to $700,000 a month, the company filing said.

AT&T lost the argument on surcharge disclosure, where the company contended that federal "truth in billing" rules are sufficient.

"AT&T believes that in today's increasingly competitive marketplace such flexibility or 'light touch' regulation ensures Kansas consumers the billing information they will need to protect themselves, as well as being able to make informed choices in the marketplace for telecommunications services," the filing said. "At the same time it imposes no significant state-specific additional or costly regulatory burdens on carriers."

CURB argued in favor of the disclosure rules, saying that the surcharges allow phone companies to advertise much lower rates than what the customer ends up having to pay.

"Some of these surcharges are pretty ridiculous," Rarrick said. "We get calls from people saying, 'They said my bill was going to be 25 bucks and with all the surcharges, it turned out to be 40 bucks.' "

Rarrick said CURB was pleased by the regulation guaranteeing customers the right to get their monthly bill on paper. He said many customers aren't comfortable with online bill-paying or don't have the computer equipment to take advantage of it.

He also said CURB supported prohibiting companies from cutting off local service to customers who don't pay unrelated communications bills, although the agency fought unsuccessfully to keep long distance service on the list of charges that couldn't trigger a shutdown.