9, 2005 Representatives from the territory's cellular phone companies aired their concerns before the Senate Government Operations and Consumer Protection Committee Wednesday, but not before being berated for what legislators termed "inadequate service" to V.I. customers.
"We have residents calling in here and complaining about lots of things, and at the top of the list is the service provided by cellular companies," Committee Chairman Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said, adding he called the meeting for this reason.
Donastorg said, "The consumers of the Virgin Islands are the ones that suffer when there is inadequate service. For what the consumer has to pay, services must improve."
Representatives from the Public Services Commission also testified about what the commission could do to ensure better service.
Donastorg said the list of consumer complaints was long, ranging from dropped calls and lack of signal in areas around the islands, to long holding periods when contacting customer service representatives.
"As you may be aware, the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 defines cellular telephone service providers as 'commercial mobile services' and have placed substantial restrictions on state and local governments in regulating cellular telephone service providers," Alric Simmonds, PSC vice chairman, told the committee.
Simmonds said the act bars state and local governments from regulating the rates of cellular providers and also bars regulation of the entry of providers into the market. Although some minor regulation is permitted, Simmonds said it is limited to the terms and conditions of commercial mobile services other than rates or market entry.
"From time to time we have had members of the community complain to the PSC offices about problems they are having with cell phone services," Simmonds said. "We have not attempted to tabulate those complaints since we have to honestly tell these folks that the PSC does not currently have any jurisdiction to help them."
In giving his testimony to the committee, Charles Hollis, vice president and general manager of Centennial USVI, reiterated Simmonds point.
"This honorable Legislature has only very limited authority with regards to the issues under investigation," Hollis said.
Hollis said Congress approved legislation prohibiting the states and local governments from regulating the entry or rates charged by wireless providers such as Centennial.
"The purpose of this federal policy was, and is, to stimulate the development of a competitive, largely unregulated market for the provision of wireless services," Hollis said. "In this regard, the Supreme Court of the United States has established that issues relating to service quality such as, in the wireless context, dropped calls are in reality 'rate issues,' and for that reason, those issues in the wireless context fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government."
Hollis told the committee members that regulating the service they provided would be regulating their rates because one could not be given apart from the other.
"The Federal Communications Commission has stated that competition is a superior guardian of the mobile customer than state regulation, which could inadvertently become an obstacle to the development of said competition," Hollis said.
Donastorg said he is aware that the Senate or V.I. government does not have jurisdiction over cellular phone companies, but that did not mean he could not meet with the companies to let them know the residents' concerns and give suggestions on ways to improve service.
Currently five carriers provide cellular service to the territory's consumers Centennial, Cingular Wireless, Sprint, AT&T, and Innovative Communications Corporation's Vitelcellular. About 38 percent of the territory's population uses cell phone, Hollis said.
Donastorg asked Eric Moore, representative of Cingular, whether his company had acquired AT&T. Moore said only on a stateside level.
"The acquisition of AT&T did not include Puerto Rico and the USVI," Moore said.
The committee chairman asked the companies what hindered their service.
Moore said one problem is with the landline provider's Innovative Telephone failure in coordinating with them to provide caller ID.
Ingnacio Anulgo, senior vice president of Centennial, said there are limitations on the number of towers in the Virgin Islands. Anulgo said all carriers have been trying to get a tower in Fortuna.
"It's very difficult to get permits and locations for towers there," Anulgo said, adding no one wanted a tower in their backyard.
Donastorg, who is a Cingular customer, complained of the busy signal he often gets. Moore said this is because the cell phone companies have to deliver all mobile to land calls through Innovative and this poses a problem during heavy volume times.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said his office conducted a survey and the most complaints came from Sprint consumers, including complaints of difficulty to speak with service representatives and receiving billings in Spanish. Sprint also charges a $5 fee to consumers if they pay their bills in person. Cingular charges a $2 fee. Both Centennial and Vitelcellular, through its representative Samuel Ebbesen, said they didn't charge a service fee to consumers paying their bills in person.
Sen. Liston Davis asked why the fees were charged.
"It is a national policy, and we're not the only ones doing it," Catherine Rodriguez, representative from Cingular, said. "What we're trying to do is to educate the customers to use other forms of payment."
"I don't understand why you would put a service fee," Donastorg said.
Rodriguez said reducing the number of people who come into the offices frees the company from hiring additional workers.
Davis asked if prices were comparable to those offered on the mainland.
Ebbesen said Vitelcellular offers a flat $35 fee per month for unlimited local calls to include Puerto Rico.
"Centennial believes that its price plans in the USVI are competitive and compare to those being offered in the mainland United States and Puerto Rico," Hollis said, adding rates range from $29.99 to $49.99 per month.
Rodriguez also said that V.I. consumers receive similar plans as in the states and Puerto Rico, and Cingular was the only company to provide rollover, thereby saving the consumers money.
"Additionally, Cingular has invested over $1.7 million in networks systems in the last six months to improve capacity and coverage, capping an estimated $5 million investment in the islands," Rodriguez said.
Hollis said Centennial would also be upgrading its system in the next six months to provide voice and high-speed data services.
Sen. Louis Hill suggested the companies provide four-year scholarships to high school seniors interested in pursuing careers in telecommunications. He also requested the companies to provide gross income reports.
All three companies present pledged to make improvements to the services. Sprint, who was also invited to testify, sent an e-mail to Donastorg indicating that no representative could attend.
Committee members present at the hearing were: Davis, Donastorg, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Hill and Malone. Sen. Ronald Russell was excused.
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