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Consumer Telecommunications Assistance & Information

Telecommunications Information

What is EAS?

Extended Area Service expands a community's local calling area. To cover the costs of implementing EAS, the local phone companies involved would likely increase local rates. EAS can be implemented on an exchange-to-exchange basis or within a region. The Montana Public Service Commission considers and implements EAS in accordance with rules adopted in 1995. The PSC cannot compel telephone co-ops to participate in an EAS arrangement, but will consider EAS arrangements between co-ops and regulated companies if the co-ops want to participate.

Why EAS?

EAS may be appropriate where "community of interest" boundaries do not coincide with telephone exchange boundaries, and telephone customers are being charged long-distance rates for calls they perceive to be local in nature.

What are the steps to get EAS?

  1. An EAS proceeding can be started in any of these ways:
    • A petition (form available from PSC) signed by at least 30% of the qualifying customers of the smaller exchange is submitted to the PSC.
    • A local phone company files a formal EAS request with the PSC.
    • The PSC can initiate an EAS proceeding on its own.
  2. The PSC must determine whether a community of interest exists between the affected exchanges by looking at calling volumes between the exchanges. A community of interest exists if one of the exchanges averages at least 8 calls per customer per month into the other exchange, and at least half of the customers make 2 or more calls per month into the other exchange. If calling volumes are insufficient, the PSC may consider other evidence presented by the petitioners, such as location of schools, medical and emergency services, government offices, etc.
  3. If a community of interest is found to exist, the local phone companies involved must figure out the costs of implementing EAS and propose EAS rates to recover those costs.
  4. The PSC holds a technical hearing on the proposed EAS arrangement. The PSC may schedule hearings in the areas affected to help ascertain customer opinion of the proposed EAS. Also, the PSC may direct the local phone companies involved to send ballots to each of their customers affected by the EAS arrangement, allowing each customer to vote on it.
  5. If the PSC decides the proposed EAS arrangement is in the public interest and is generally accepted by the public, EAS will be approved.

Operator Service Providers

Operator service providers (OSPs) are companies that connect and bill for calls placed from pay phones and at phone systems in hotels, hospitals, airports, etc. OSP rates are often much higher than the major long-distance companies' rates. However, pay phone users can "dial around" the OSP by dialing in the access code for their carriers of choice.

As required by Montana law, the PSC establishes maximum allowable rates for intrastate OSP calls. The rate caps are set once each year by averaging the operator service and intrastate toll rates of Qwest, AT&T, MCI Worldcom and Sprint and adding 50 percent to each averaged rate. It is illegal for an operator service provider in Montana to bill a customer more than the allowable rate set by the PSC. If an OSP charges more than the rate cap for an intrastate call, Montana law allows the customer to sue the company for three times the cost of the call or $500, whichever is greater.

The current maximum allowable rates are found here.

In addition to the price protection afforded by the OSP rate caps, pay telephones must enable providers of operator services at these phones to:

  1. Post the following information in plain view on or near the pay phone:
    • Name, address and toll-free phone number of the operator service provider
    • A statement that rates are available upon request
    • Dialing procedures for using the phone's operator service provider and instructions for accessing the local exchange company's operator
  2. Identify itself to the consumer at the beginning of each call.
  3. Provide upon a consumer's request and at no charge:
    • A rate quote for a call
    • Billing and complaint-handling information
    • A toll-free phone number to report complaints
  4. Allow a caller to hang up at no charge before a call is connected.
  5. Connect the consumer to the local telephone company operator upon request and at no charge, or explain how to do so.
  6. Disclose that the OSP's rates will apply when a consumer uses a calling or credit card other than one issued by the OSP and explain how to get a free rate quote.
  7. Allow callers to use other available carriers by dialing an access code.
  8. Route emergency calls to the appropriate emergency service.

PSC rules also require that certain conditions be met by a customer who connects a pay telephone to a regulated telephone company's line. These phones must:

  1. Comply with all applicable local phone company tariffs.
  2. Have an FCC registration number.
  3. Allow free calls to emergency service (911), the local operator, and 800 service.
  4. Return coins if a call can't be completed (on a coin phone).
  5. Post on or nearby instructions for use, for registering complaints and for obtaining refunds; owner's name, address and phone number; and restrictions on incoming calls, if any.
  6. Comply with state and federal laws on use and access by disabled and hearing-impaired individuals.

Telephone Assistance Program: Lifeline & Link-Up

Lifeline & Link-Up?
The Lifeline telephone discount program provides eligible telephone subscribers certain discounts on the basic monthly telephone service charge. The Link-Up program provides eligible consumers a discount on the hook-up fee. Eligible subscribers living on or near tribal lands may qualify for additional discounts.
Who is eligible
You may qualify for discounts if you are an adult (18 years or older), receive Medicaid services, and have telephone service in your name. If you live on or near Tribal Lands, you may qualify if you have income at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participate in any of the following qualifying assistance programs: Medicaid; Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance; Tribally-Administered Temporary assistance for Needy Families (TTANF); Head Start (those meeting its income qualifying standard); National School Lunch Program's Free Lunch Program (those meeting its income qualifying standard); Food Stamps; Supplemental Security Income (SSI); Federal Public Housing Assistance (Section 89); Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
How to apply
Contact your local Office of Public Assistance and ask for a DISCOUNT COUPON FOR TELEPHONE SERVICES. Fill out the coupon and drop it off at your local Office of Public Assistance. After eligibility is verified, your name will be sent on to your local telephone provider. Look for a rate reduction in about two months.
Don't have a phone?
If you are an adult, receive Medicaid services, and have no phone, you may qualify for the Link-Up program, as well as the Lifeline program. Please contact your phone company and place an order for service, then submit your DISCOUNT COUPON FOR TELEPHONE SERVICES to your local Office of Public Assistance.
Get more information & assistance
Contact your local Office of Public Assistance.

Long Distance Related Information

Slamming:

The unauthorized switches of customer' long-distance carriers

The Public Service Commission is receiving increasing numbers of complaints from Montanans about telephone "slamming," which occurs when a customer's telephone carrier is changed without the customer's consent.

Customers have the right to use any carrier they choose and to change carriers at any time. Sometimes, however, a long-distance carrier may engage in sales tactics that result in a customer unknowingly changing his or her long-distance service.

The 1997 Montana Legislature passed a law to provide consumers with some protection against slamming. The new law applies to switches of local exchange and in-state long-distance carriers as well as to long-distance carrier switches. In a nutshell, the law says:

  • Phone companies must use one of three allowable methods to obtain a consumer’s authorization for a carrier change: 1) get it in writing; 2) get it electronically over the phone via an 800-number dialed by the consumer, followed by the consumer keying in the required information; or, 3) get it verbally during a telemarketing call and have an independent third party verify the authorization.
  • A consumer who has been slammed does not have to pay any charges billed by the slamming company.

Complaints to the PSC indicate that some companies' marketing practices are misleading at best and downright deceptive at worst. Consumers have been switched to long-distance carriers who misrepresent themselves as well-known, established long-distance companies who are offering discounts. Another ploy is for the telemarketer to say he/she is calling on behalf of the consumer's local phone company when there is no truth to that statement. Some consumers report they were "slammed" even though they told the telemarketer they were not interested in switching companies.

What can consumers do to protect themselves from these slamming practices? Never sign anything without reading it carefully. If you receive a phone call about long-distance or local telephone service, be sure to tell the caller if you only want to receive information or if you are not interested in receiving their service. If someone calls or sends a letter or postcard "verifying" that you have switched carriers, you should reply that you did not authorize the change, then call your local phone company to make sure you are still subscribed to your preferred carrier. Read your phone bill carefully each month. If you see any unfamiliar names, call your local phone company for information.

If you get "slammed," immediately contact your local phone company. Tell them that you did not order service from the new carrier, that you want to be reconnected to your preferred carrier. Then call the carrier that slammed you and inform that company that you did not request its service, that you want it cancelled immediately and that you will not be paying any charges billed to you during the period of the unauthorized switch unless the carrier can provide documentation of your authorization for the carrier change. If you have actually paid any charges billed by the carrier, inform the carrier that you are entitled to a refund unless the carrier can provide documentation of your authorization for the carrier change. Additionally, any "change charges" (the charge for switching companies) must be taken off your phone bill.

The Montana PSC is available to assist state residents with slamming complaints. The PSC address is PO Box 202601, Helena MT 59620-2601. Our phone number is 1-800-646-6150. We'll need a copy of your bill from the slamming carrier and your written complaint.

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