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In partisan vote, FCC changes consumer complaint process

The lone Democrat on the GOP-controlled commission called the proposal "bonkers."

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to streamline its process for handling complaints from consumers who have issues with their broadband providers.

But critics, including the commission's lone Democrat on the four-person panel, said the decision to drop one word from the rules — "disposition" — means the FCC is abandoning its responsibility for taking action against internet providers unless consumers pay a $225 fee to file a formal complaint.

The FCC insisted that the vote did not substantially change its procedure for handling complaints, and that it will still investigate informal claims that do not require a fee.

"There is no change, no proposal or no rule to eliminate the agency's traditional and important role of helping consumers in the informal complaint process," the FCC said in a statement to NBC News.

But the Democratic commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, said that deleting the word "disposition" puts the onus on consumers to pay for a formal complaint if they want the FCC to take a serious look at problems.

"I believe we should be doing everything within our power to make it easier for consumers to file complaints and seek redress," she said Thursday in a statement before the vote. "This decision utterly fails that test. I dissent."

The FCC fields tens of thousands of complaints a year from consumers about over billing, poor services and other problems in dealing with internet service providers.

Typically, it passes the complaints along to the companies involved, and only enforces judgment when it determines issues have not been sufficiently resolved between the parties themselves.

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Republican-controlled FCC.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

Two House Democrats, Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the ranking member of the Commerce Committee, and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, also said the vote ran counter to the FCC's mission of working for consumers.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the two congressman wrote: "Creating a rule that directs FCC staff to simply pass consumers' informal complaints on to the company and then to advise consumers that they file a $225 formal complaint if not satisfied ignores the core mission of the FCC — working in the public interest."

They added: "We have all heard countless stories of consumers complaining to the FCC about waiting months to have an erroneous charge removed from their bill or for a refund for a service they never ordered or about accessibility services that are not working. Oftentimes these issues are corrected for consumers as a result of the FCC's advocacy on their behalf."

Ars Technica first reported the proposal.

CORRECTION (July 12, 7:30 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the scope of the FCC's vote on Thursday. It was limited to its informal complaints process. According to the FCC, it did not pertain to the formal complaints process, which already required consumers to pay a $225 filing fee.