Got a problem with your home phone service? You may not be able to complain to state regulators much longer.
Legislators are close to lifting limits on annual rate increases for landline phones and eliminating the state Public Service Commission's ability to handle consumers' billing complaints. The measure awaits a vote in the Senate, after it sailed through the House last week. It then would go to the governor's desk for a signature to become law.
Legislators supporting the bills, HB 1231 and SB 1524, and other measures in Tallahassee to kill state regulations say the efforts could draw more jobs and businesses to Florida and reduce costs for the state and taxpayers.
The regulations, opponents of the bills say, were developed over decades because consumers complained, and without state rules similar problems could emerge.
One-fourth of Floridians over age 18 have landline phones — those that transmit sound by wires — in their homes, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nationally, 31 percent have home phones.
"We are operating under rotary dial regulation in an iPhone world," said Stephanie Smith, a spokeswoman for AT&T, which supports the changes. The phone giant reported it spent $170,000 during the first three months of the year on lobbying and $140,000 in contributions to the state's Republican and Democratic parties, according to state records.
The legislation aims to level the playing field for Florida's roughly 300 landline companies, such as AT&T. They now compete with wireless and Internet phone providers like Skype — which are largely unregulated by the state's Public Service Commission.
The Federal Communications Commission regulates wireless phone service and voice over Internet protocol, VoIP. It also oversees consumer complaints about landline service for 13 states that no longer handle them.
If the measure passes in Florida, consumers with complaints — such as being charged for services they didn't request or being switched from one long-distance carrier to another without consent — still may be able to get help from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, according to a legislative staff report. That department has a nonbinding dispute resolution program.
Similar legislation led AT&T to raise rates by 9 percent since late 2010 in Ohio; about 60 percent since 2007 in Missouri; and 19 percent since 1997 in Arkansas, according to a PSC report. As of 2009, only one state, Delaware, saw rates for basic service decrease after deregulation, according to the report.
Officials from AARP Florida, an advocacy group for seniors, say the legislation could hurt older residents, many of whom still use landline phones and may have health warning or other alarm systems connected to them.
AARP Florida released a survey last month showing four in 10 older Floridians have difficulty paying their electric bills. Jeff Johnson, interim state director of the group, said economic development shouldn't happen "on the backs of people who are already struggling to make ends meet."
Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, told lawmakers Wednesday that AARP members voiced concern about rate increases before legislators approved previous deregulation measures. "Frankly, we've seen just the opposite," he said.
Cell phone service is not regulated by the PSC and yet consumers can buy cell phone plans for as little as $15 a month, and some cell phones are designed with large numbers to target senior citizens and others with vision problems.
Consumer billing complaints to the PSC against AT&T landline companies since 2002 dropped from a high of 2,462 in 2004 — after a 2003 law allowing phone rate increases — to a low of 868 last year.
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said regulations can act like "cobwebs," and getting rid of them can help draw more jobs to the state. For instance, landline companies might use the money they generate from rate increases to invest in newer technology such as smartphones.
The legislation could eliminate 11 jobs at the PSC, according to a legislative staff report. Versions of the state budget passed by the House and Senate would cut 27 positions and $2 million from the PSC's $28 million budget.
Consumers can weigh in by contacting their legislators at sunsentinel.com/findmylegislator.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun