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FCC Targets Phone Firms’ Sales Tactics : Telecommunications: New rules are designed to prevent companies from switching long-distance carriers without a customer’s permission.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Federal Communications Commission moved Thursday to crack down on attempts by long-distance telephone companies to hijack each other’s customers by switching them from one carrier to another without first getting their explicit permission.

By unanimous vote, the panel set up new rules that will require long-distance carriers either to obtain written authorization from customers, ask them to confirm the change by calling a toll-free 800 number, or have the request verified by an independent auditor.

The regulations, which will become effective in mid-February, are designed to deal with what has become one of the most pervasive complaints about telephone service today--and one of the most annoying to ordinary consumers.

The practice, known as “slamming,” has increased dramatically since long-distance companies began employing telemarketing services in an effort to persuade telephone users to switch. Such firms often are paid on the basis of how many new customers they sign up.

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Previous rules required only that the long-distance companies make an attempt to get a signed authorization from a customer once he has been contacted by phone. But few customers send in their cards, and often the companies order the switch anyway.

In a separate action, the commission also tightened its rules requiring television broadcasters to charge political candidates the lowest available advertising rates, to disclose what they charge other advertisers and to correct any overcharges promptly.

The move was in response to pressure from Congress, which had complained that many candidates were discovering belatedly that they had been overcharged and finding that TV stations were slow in refunding the money, sometimes waiting until well after the election.

The commission also voted to allow TV and radio stations to refuse to run political commercials during news programs. Some broadcasters had complained that accepting such ads might erode the integrity of the news programming.

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The rules designed to crack down on slamming essentially make permanent a safeguard system that has been in use since last December by AT&T; and MCI Communications Corp. The system was devised after MCI sued the former telephone monopoly, charging that it was improperly taking away MCI customers.

Because the AT&T-MCI; system is expensive to put into effect, however, the FCC provided a fourth option that would enable smaller carriers to send customers a prepaid postcard that they could mail back to cancel the switch orders. The carriers would have to wait two weeks before putting the switch orders into effect.

The new rules would apply to all new orders for switching long-distance carriers, whether they involve home or business telephones or customer-owned pay phones. The panel eschewed as too costly a provision in the AT&T-MCI; accord for monthly audits of transfer orders.

FCC officials said later they believed that the new rules would prove effective in curtailing the number of abuses. They said the number of complaints that the agency has received about “slamming” has declined to 99 a month in October, from 200 a year earlier.

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The new rules affecting political advertising apparently were reached as the result of a compromise among the five members of the commission, who had been split sharply on a variety of issues involving the selling of campaign commercials.

Panel Chairman Alfred C. Sikes filed a formal dissent protesting the commission’s decision to bar political candidates from purchasing air time during news programs, saying it would deprive voters of a source of information just when they were most likely to tune in.

The measure followed an FCC audit of about 30 stations 17 months ago that showed that candidates often paid higher prices for air time than business advertisers, partly because their ads had to run on time and could not be postponed.

In other action, the commission also voted to prohibit the use of cellular telephones on airplanes during flights, for fear of causing undue interference to other cellular systems. And it authorized installation of cellular phones in private planes.

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The panel also invited additional comments from interested parties on whether to continue the 21-year-old rule that bars the nation’s major television networks from owning cable television systems.

The old regulations were set when authorities feared that such cross-ownership would impede competition, but analysts have argued that the cable industry has changed so dramatically in recent years that the commission should rescind or modify its ban.


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