Florida Regulators Gang Up on AT&T

Local regulators sick of hearing complaints from AT&T Broadband's South Florida customers are now ganging up on the cable operator.

Broward County, Fla., has tightened the acceptable standards for answering consumer phone calls, Plantation is contemplating a lawsuit and Fort Lauderdale has taken the first step toward a 15-fold increase in penalties for subscriber complaints.

A series of missteps put the cable company in the line of regulatory fire. AT&T Broadband's problems were detailed in a letter sent to Jacksonville earlier this summer after the City Council threatened to begin revocation proceedings.

AT&T is in the midst of consolidating the operations of its cable properties with those it acquired from the former MediaOne Group Inc. The company is attempting to swap out analog boxes to launch digital service.

Such an upgrade always results in a higher volume of consumer phone calls. But the regional operation also decided to install a new billing system, further complicating the situation. That switch — from DST Innovis billing software to a platform from CSG Systems Inc. — required customer-service staffers to leave their phones for training.

The letter from regional director of corporate affairs Ann Carter Murphy added that the new, "simplified" bills generated by the new software also fueled calls from consumers confused by the new line items on the bill.

To rectify regional service problems, AT&T Broadband established a "virtual call center" in Miramar, Fla., and hired more service representatives.

But the cities assert that service is still unacceptable. On Aug. 28, Broward County, Fla., commissioners beefed up their service penalties. That happened after commissioner Ilene Lieberman reported that she had called the company for service and had been put on hold for 40 minutes. (Lieberman was the driving force between her county's failed attempt to open access to cable's high-speed data platform.)

On behalf of the commission, a survey of the county's 25,000 cable households (homes outside of the county's incorporated cities) was conducted. Three-quarters of the 441 respondents said they have poor reception, outages and trouble contacting the company.

According to the new standards, AT&T Broadband must have live operators to answer calls within three minutes. If it fails to answer calls — or sends the calls to an answering device — the company could be subjected to fines of $250 per violation.

AT&T Broadband Florida spokeswoman Maureen O'Neil attributed the county's action to the pending change in Florida telecommunications regulations. Under the state's simplified telecommunications tax bill — which takes effect Oct. 1 — operators will pay a flat tax to the state, a change many cities believe will diminish local regulatory power.

The Oct. 1 deadline did not give the two sides enough time to work things out, O'Neil said, adding AT&T Broadband will "deal with" the complaints.

Consumer dissatisfaction also appeared to prompt a Plantation City Council vote to sue AT&T Broadband over municipal Internet connections.

The city has documented consumer telephone-access complaints. Service standards require the cable company to answer calls no less than 90 percent of the time. Callers can't be put on hold for more than 30 seconds.

Plantation is countering by holding AT&T Broadband to the details of its franchise, which, officials believe, includes providing Internet connections and e-mail addresses to all city departments. Those connections could cost the company $250,000.

City officials did not return calls last week.

The latest blow came from Fort Lauderdale. It fined AT&T Broadband $174,100 for service violations late in August. This month, the City Council acted to greatly raise service fines.

The increases won't take effect until a second vote on Sept. 20. But the council wants the company to answer its phones 95 percent of the time. Callers must reach a live operator within 30 seconds.

The former fine was $250; the new fine structure calls for $10,000 on the first occurrence escalating up to $75,000 for the fourth service lapse in a year. The fines will be based on quarterly reports.

AT&T Broadband has already begun to turn around its customer service failures, O'Neil said. Complaints are declining and she expects that trend to continue, she added.