Is Jamming Being Used To Stop Slamming?
By Kim Sunderland
While AT&T Corp. alleges Denver-based US WEST Inc. is jamming, the Bell
countercharges that the long distance giant is slamming. It’s a convoluted mess that’s
likely to come before state and federal lawmakers for a resolution.
On one hand, AT&T estimates that as many as 1 million customers throughout US
WEST’s territory have had their local toll accounts frozen without their permission, a
practice newly termed as "jamming," which also is known as an unauthorized
primary interexchange carrier (PIC) freeze. Customers who may have frozen their long
distance accounts to avoid being slammed–which is when their preferred long distance
carrier is switched without authorization–have had their local toll accounts frozen
without consent, according to AT&T.
MCI WorldCom Inc. already has filed a complaint against US WEST Inc. in Colorado for
jamming. While US WEST customers do have the option of establishing a PIC freeze on their
account as a way to prevent slamming, US WEST has taken the process too far by applying
freezes to many customers’ local toll accounts, regardless of whether they want it,
according to MCI WorldCom.
"By jamming customers, US WEST is freezing out competition by illegally impeding
its customers from choosing an alternative phone company," says Bill Levis, regional
director for MCI WorldCom Public Policy. "US WEST is trampling its customers’ legal
rights to benefit from local toll calling competition in order to preserve its
US WEST’s jamming practice violates the new federal slamming rules that went into
effect April 27, AT&T attorneys said in a letter they sent to US WEST that same day.
In it, AT&T demanded the Bell lift all PIC freezes that weren’t requested. "US
WEST is blatantly denying consumers’ legal rights to choose their local toll company by
placing a barrier on their accounts,” said AT&T attorney Maria Arias-Chapleau.
"US WEST will resort to illegal activities to protect its monopoly.”
US WEST, on the other hand, criticizes AT&T for what it calls a "massive
campaign … designed to prevent customers from protecting themselves against
slamming." AT&T is attempting to limit or even restrict a customer’s right to
freeze long distance accounts to prevent slamming, says Mike Fernandez, US WEST’s vice
president of communications.
"AT&T has hit a new low with this campaign,” he says. "It’s like a
burglar demanding that homeowners remove every lock from every door. Clearly, AT&T’s
campaign is directly at odds with policymakers in eight states where regulators have asked
that freezes remain in place to protect consumers against slamming in all forms.”
"Having US WEST in charge of customer accounts is a classic case of the fox
guarding the henhouse,” counters Tom Pelto, AT&T’s vice president of law and
government affairs. "Eliminating US WEST’s control is the only way to guarantee that
consumers’ choices will be protected.”
But US WEST wasn’t deterred, calling AT&T "one of the largest slammers in the
country," throwing out such facts as:
US WEST says AT&T and other long distance companies are using additional slamming
techniques to fool and deceive customers into switching their in-state long distance
service. To date, regulators in Arizona, New Mexico, Minnesota, Montana, Utah, Washington
and Wyoming have agreed that customer-requested account freezes should be extended to all
long distance accounts. In Iowa, regulators have asked US WEST to extend these freezes
after a 90-day waiting period.
US WEST says that when customers call the company to freeze accounts, US WEST asks them
to make separate decisions about freezing their national long distance account and their
in-state long distance account. "If customers choose to freeze their long distance
accounts, they retain full right of choice,” Fernandez says. "The only thing stymied
by account freezes are unscrupulous long distance companies interested in changing a
customer’s account without permission.
"If AT&T is truly interested in consumer rights," he adds, "one has
to wonder why this company is so interested in removing customers’ ability to manage their