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Originally published Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 4:05 PM

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Guest: Protect consumers in cases of telecommunications outages

After telecommunications service was interrupted for 10 days lin November on the San Juan Islands, Sen. Kevin Ranker wants to require companies to provide refunds when service fails.

Special to The Times

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HOW many times have you lost telephone, cable, Internet or cellphone service, and how much of an inconvenience was it?

How many times did your provider reimburse you for the services you did not receive?

What about when it becomes far more than an inconvenience? If you’re a business, what if you can no longer take credit cards, reservations or even send an email or receive a phone call? What sort of economic hardship does this cause? Worse, what if you have a medical emergency and you no longer have access to 911?

This was the case this past November when a severed CenturyLink cable was the cause of a 10-day service interruption in the San Juan Islands. Our community was left without much, if any, contact with the outside world for more than a week. The most alarming impact of this extended outage was the disruption of our emergency 911 service.

First responders in our area reported two significant medical incidents that were delayed as a result of the outage. Both elderly individuals tried without success to call for help through their medical alert devices. Tragically, one of these individuals later passed away.

Our reliance on technology grows exponentially with each passing year. Our ability to access that technology has become an absolutely critical aspect of public health, safety and economic activity.

Our current system of telecommunications delivery is weighted heavily in favor of the providers. The companies that provide these critical services must do everything they can to make sure coverage is maintained, and when it is not, they must be prepared to fix the problem as quickly as possible. This includes redundant systems and having an emergency response plan in place when problems occur. The only real course of action consumers currently have should they be left without cable, Internet, landlines or cellphone service for any extended period of time is to essentially wait it out.

We must not only establish safeguards for the public when it comes to receiving service, but we must also create additional incentives for the telecommunications industry to ensure continued access to the services that have become an essential part of the day-to-day lives of people and businesses alike.

That is the motivation behind the Telecommunications Consumer Fairness Act, which has strong bipartisan support and ensures that if a telecommunications provider is at fault for failing to provide you with service for 12 hours or more during a billing cycle, the corporation will reimburse you on a prorated basis.

Just as telecommunication providers create an incentive for us to pay our bills on time through a late fee, this legislation would create an even greater incentive for them to keep their systems up and running. If they fail to provide, they would be penalized.

To be fair to the provider, this legislation would not apply if the outage is caused by an Act of God, customer actions or other causes not within the control of the service provider. If the service provider fails to provide the billing credit as required, the customer would have remedies under the state’s Consumer Protection Act. The customer could also seek to have the state attorney general initiate actions to enforce the billing credit requirements.

Unfortunately, the telecommunications industry representatives are in Olympia, actively trying to stop this legislation. It seems they would rather we continue to pay for services they don’t provide. I’ll do my part, but I need your help. Reach out to legislators here in Olympia and ask them to listen to you instead of the telecommunications industry.

Senate Bill 6197 would simply bring balance to the provider-consumer relationship. This is an issue of fairness, public safety, public health and fundamentally the right thing to do.

State Sen. Kevin Ranker, a Democrat, represents the 40th Legislative District, which includes Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan Counties in the Northern Puget Sound.

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