If you've ever taken a good, long -- and we do mean long -- look at your phone bill, you probably wondered where all those charges come from. Some you don't even recognize. You may even open the envelope and find you've been switched to another company altogether. Who do you turn to for help and advice?
The FCC. Working to keep the telephone lines clear and television signals static-free, the Federal Communications Commission oversees the nation's communications systems. Established in 1934, the FCC is charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable.
''We see ourselves as the eyes and ears of the telecom industry,'' said FCC Consumer Information Bureau chief Lorraine Miller.
Organized by function, the FCC's seven bureaus -- Cable Services, Common Carrier, Consumer Information, Enforcement, International, Mass Media, and Wireless Telecommunications -- develop and implement regulatory programs, process applications for licenses, analyze complaints and conduct investigations, among other tasks. So, for example, while the Wireless Bureau is busy mapping out FCC domestic wireless telecom programs and policies, the Cable Services Bureau is working to ensure competition among cable and satellite companies.
So how does this all this affect the average person? Connecting you to all seven bureaus is the Consumer Information Bureau (CIB), a one-stop shop for information on FCC policies, programs and activities. As Miller explains, the bureau's main functions include fielding and processing consumer complaints, educating consumers about FCC regulatory programs and soliciting feedback.
''We view the consumer education office as our effort to touch the everyday American,'' she said. ''We're trying to get out beyond the Beltway and understand what kind of concerns people have, and we use [that feedback] to help resolve issues.''
What can the FCC do for you?
The FCC can do plenty. Just a sampling of the kinds of issues the CIB addresses daily include preventing ''slamming'' (when phone service is changed without authorization), ending confusing phone bills and promoting disability access. Consumer complaints about such matters help the FCC better gauge where it needs to focus its attention. For example, given the volume of consumer inquiries the CIB receives regarding billing, the FCC joined with the FTC in March to set guidelines for the telephone industry that would make billing and advertising more explicit.
''Generally people call to say they took service out with a carrier, thought it was this price, look at bill and find they got something else much higher,'' Miller said. ''That's because, let's say MCI, hypothetically, with Michael Jordan on a commercial saying their plan is 5 cents a minute. But what you don't see is that you have to pay a $5.50 a month fee. We didn't want the public to take advantage of these services and not have full understanding of what was involved.''
Consumers can contact the FCC regarding anything related to telecom, from billing to choosing a phone plan to the wireless market. Whether you're being inundated by unsolicited telephone calls and faxes or your phone service has been switched without your authorization, consumer counselors at the commission's Consumer Information Bureau can help.