By Jack Gurner
WATER VALLEY – Cell phone and wireless broadband service will be improving this year in Mississippi, Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley told the Water Valley Rotary Club.
AT&T plans to construct over 60 new cell phone towers and upgrade over 200 sites statewide to provide 3G wireless broadband. “This effort by AT&T will bring wireless service and wireless broadband to many areas of North Mississippi by the end of 2010,” Presley said.
“Rural North Mississippi will see a huge improvement in services under these plans and I want to applaud AT&T for making this effort,” he added.
“I know we’ve already seen some improvement right here around Water Valley in cell phone service.”
Presley’s comments came during the March 16 meeting of the Rotary Club at which the Commissioner explained the role of the PSC as a watchdog agency for the state’s utility customers.
“We regulate utilities in Mississippi…water, sewer, electric, natural gas, telephone companies, long-distance carriers,” he said. “You add up all the companies we regulate and it’s 1440 as of the last count.”
Presley explained that under the current system in Mississippi consumers don’t have any choice from which companies they get their utility services. “There has to be a public body to regulate these companies in the public interest to insure that customers are getting the products they are paying for, they are not being overcharged for those products, and that certain customer service quality measurements are being followed.”
“One of the things that we do that is very, very popular in our consumer protection role is enforce the State’s No Call List,” Presley said.
The list consists of telephone numbers of Mississippi residential telephone subscribers who have elected to reduce telephone solicitations.
“I have spent a lot of time concentrating on shutting down and putting out of business telemarketers that are violating our State’s No Call List,” he said.
The Commissioner explained how the PSC was able to fine an auto warranty company for making calls to Mississippians on the list. The company, SVM, Inc., of San Diego, Calif., and its owner Mike Moneymaker — an alias for Mike Millerd — were fined $455,000 dollars, the largest ever levied against a company by the PSC.
“If we can stop the calls from ever coming to Mississippi, we know that is the best defense we can ever give the people of this state.”
Presley stressed that citizens should report unwanted telemarketing solicitations to the PSC. “We’ve hired a special prosecutor who is working on nothing but these No Call cases.”
He also praised the new caller ID anti-spoofing act that was signed into law by the Governor on Monday, March 15, and becomes effective July 1. Anyone found guilty of violating the Act can be fined up to $1,000 as a misdemeanor or prosecuted as an unfair trade practice under existing state law.
The measure will outlaw deceptive tactics used by some telemarketers and others when calling Mississippians. The Act outlaws a technique used to show a different number and/or name on caller ID than that of the actual caller.
Presley said that about 200 of the No Call List violations that were reported to his office in 2008 used caller ID spoofing.
Another illegal practice handled by the PSC that is related to telephone service is slamming and cramming.
“Slamming is where your long distance provider is changed and you don’t even know it,” said Presley. “Sometimes that results in you having to pay more. If you see your phone service has been changed pick up the phone and call us.”
“Cramming is where you see a charge just appear on your telephone bill that you’ve not authorized. It’s against the law, it’s against commission rules, so please take the time to report it.”
Open To The Public
Presley believes that it is vitally important that the Public Service Commission is open to public scrutiny.
“I have pushed for two years to open our meetings to the public. It’s very important for all of us politicians who run around election year telling all of y’all what we’ll do if you give us a chance to be elected, get to see what we do when we’re elected.”
Presley said that he contacted the Attorney General’s office and asked if they were under the open meetings act. “When we vote to raise your rates – and its got to come out of your pocket book – are we required to do that in public?”
“That question had never been asked,” he said. “The answer came back, ‘Yes, sir. Absolutely you’re supposed to do it in public.’”
“When you have to cast a vote in public and when you have to do the public’s business in public, that makes us better public servants, that makes the companies we regulate better companies, and that makes the public better informed. We shouldn’t do your business with the drapes drawn. It should be open and let the sunshine in.”
Presley invited everyone to view the PSC meetings on the Internet. “It’s not the most exciting hour or hour and a half,” he added with a chuckle.
“We’ve set the tone at the Public Service Commission. No back room deals. No voting on something and hope no one sees it,” Presley said. “If we vote to raise our gas bill, hold me accountable for that.”
“You need to watch and see what we are doing. You need to have that right. I think it sends a strong signal to the companies we regulate that our agency is not there necessarily to protect them. But, it is there to protect the public.”
Presley then opened the floor to questions and the first was about unwanted sales calls to businesses. “I have beat my head against the wall for two years now with the Legislature asking why we don’t put businesses on the No Call List. It’s the dumbest thing in the world not to.”
“Now, just let me be completely honest. The phone companies in the state, particularly AT&T, fight this measure every year. And, I don’t understand why. We should give businesses that protection.”
“That’s a testament to how broken our system is that you can’t get something that is good for the people done because you’ve got all this lobbying interest.”
Another Rotary member asked Presley if the PSC regulated cable television. Presley responded that they did not. “Some days I wished we did based on the number of complaints we get related to cable.”
A visitor then asked about the fees that are tacked onto telephone bills. Presley explained that the universal service fund (USF) is the main one tacked onto bills.
“All that money is collected from Mississippi telephone customers,” he said. “It comes in and $60,000,000 goes to Washington. Each year we got back $280,000,000 out of that universal service fund. We get back more than any other state.”
“That money is to be spent by our telephone companies to bring wired telephone service to rural areas and to increase wireless telephone coverage throughout the state.”
Presley urged consumers with questions about utility services to contact the PSC in Jackson at (800) 356-6428. “You’ll get a human being. You’re not going to talk to a machine. We’ll work with you every which way in the world we can to get your complaint resolved.”