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Gelles: With Comcast, could 'utility' regulation really hurt?

Wayne attorney Edmond Tiryak doesn't much dwell on telecommunications law, though he thinks the FCC did right last month when it backed net neutrality.

Wayne attorney Edmond Tiryak doesn't much dwell on telecommunications law, though he thinks the FCC did right last month when it backed net neutrality.

That's the rule that says network owners like Comcast and Verizon can't block or discriminate when handling Internet traffic - say, to offer other businesses access to higher-priced "fast lanes." As Tiryak sees it, data "should be like water - you can't get purer water if you pay more."

But Tiryak has his own telecom story to tell - and his analogy suggests an intriguing question.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has repeatedly said that reclassifying broadband as a "telecommunications service" rather than a lightly regulated "information service" was needed to enforce neutrality, but that the FCC would not impose "utility-style" rules such as price regulation. Even so, that was the mantra of his opponents, and the hot-button phrase was repeated in many news stories, too.

But Tiryak's story, like others told by Comcast customers, raises a question worth asking: Would consumers really be worse off if broadband companies were regulated at least a bit more like, say, a water or power utility?

To free-marketeers, there is almost nothing more odious. Since cable and fiber companies won looser oversight a decade ago, they've argued wishfully that new competition would flourish, and choice would provide all the protection consumers need. Tales like Tiryak's should raise doubts.

After 25 years as a satisfied Comcast subscriber, Tiryak moved in October. Three weeks later, after no-show appointments, waits on hold up to 40 minutes, and other miscues, he still wasn't hooked up. Then Comcast delivered the last straw: a bill for $215 for services never rendered.

By the time he contacted me in January, Tiryak had given up in frustration and was just fighting to get the $215 bill erased. Even four letters to Comcast's president hadn't done the trick.

Tiryak's charges have finally been zeroed out - I think. I say that with hesitation because he got yet another dunning call last week, after I forwarded his latest complaint to Comcast and he received yet another promise. He's more confident this time, though, because the latest assurances came with a name and phone number attached.

Tiryak is baffled by the whole saga. "It's astonishing to me that they would take a really good customer, who's been with them 25 years, and basically just treat me as if I'm nothing - as if I'm useless to them," he says.

I'm less surprised, though I credit Comcast for solving readers' complaints I've passed along. The market works best when shifting your business is frictionless and consumers have lots of choices. Neither has ever been true for pay-TV services or, especially, for broadband.

So how would things be different if we had that dreaded "utility-style" regulation? I put that question to Mitch Miller, former director of consumer services for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, who reviewed Tiryak's complaint and others I shared. Miller said all seemed run of the mill - the kinds, including disputes about anything on a bill, that an agency like the PUC could easily help solve.

Under PUC rules, he says, after a utility investigates a dispute, it has to ask whether the consumer is satisfied. "If the customer says no, the company is required to give the PUC's number for making an informal complaint," he says. That is usually enough to solve most issues, he says. The agency also monitors nagging problems like long hold times for calls and occasionally intervenes.

Of course, an effective complaint process - one that doesn't require a columnist or blogger's intercession - is hardly the only thing companies like Comcast might fear from being classified as telecommunications common carriers. Public Knowledge's Harold Feld says carriers' bigger fear might be that states could someday force them to serve everyone in a territory - "the quintessential common-carrier obligation," he says.

Wheeler's plan should ensure that will stay far off, or never happen at all. If it does, it will be only because broadband service continues to prove itself essential - and competition continues to fail on its promises.

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles