MCI'S ARBITRATORS ACCUSED

Washington, D.C., Mar 29, 1999 (DLD Digest) - The Federal Communications Commission was asked today to strike down part of MCI Telecommunications Corp.'s federal tariff that requires the use of an arbitrator hand-picked by MCI to resolve billing disputes with MCI customers. In a petition for declaratory ruling filed with the FCC, Pioneer Communications charged that MCI is using its special tariff privileges to strip customers of their right under the law to a day in court. The tariff forces customers to submit disputes for arbitration by a company that has signed lucrative, exclusive contracts to serve as MCI's arbitrator. In its petition, Pioneer called the arrangement between MCI and the for-profit arbitration company -- which has included various perks, including free MCI long distance service -- a ``sham'' and an ``obvious conflict of interest.'' Pioneer asked the FCC to take immediate action to stop MCI from forcing customers to comply with the arbitration provision of its tariff. Pioneer also alleged that the arbitration provisions of MCI's tariff are intended to deny MCI customers their right under the Communications Act to bring disputes with MCI to FCC or federal courts. Section 207 of the Act guarantees that right to consumers. But under an arcane legal principle called the "filed rate doctrines," MCI's tariff takes precedence, even over the law, until and unless the FCC finds the tariff unlawful. Using this scheme, MCI has succeeded in blocking customers from exercising this right and forcing them to submit to arbitration by an arbitrator chosen solely by MCI. Pioneer Communications is a rural telephone company and long distance carrier based in southwest Kansas. Pioneer became subject to the illegal arbitration provisions of MCI's tariff following a dispute over excessive charges imposed by MCI on Pioneer.