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PURA: Retail Suppliers Can Elect Not to Text Customer Notifications

December 17, 2015 By Cheryl Kaften

In a proposed final decision, the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority on December 1 (Docket No. 13-07-18RE01) stated that retail electricity suppliers must offer customers at least two options – U.S. mail and email – to receive notifications of plan cancellation requirements and exact enrollment date prerequisites.

The finding eliminated three previous notification methods required under Public Act 14-75, codified in part in Conn. Gen. Stat. §16‑245o(g)(1) – which had required, in pertinent part, that “such selection shall include the option for written notice through United States mail, electronic mail, text message, an application on a cellular telephone, or a third party notification service approved by the authority. Such customer shall have the option to change the method of notification at any time during the contract.”

In modifying the rules, the commission was responding to a request made in October by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) for an inquiry into the retail energy sector’s billing and service practices after customer complaints escalated last year; as well as to the Retail Energy Supply Association’s contention that offering text-based messaging for cancellation requires a substantial investment by providers, with no certainty that many customers would use this type of communications channel.

Explaining its decision, PURA said, “The authority recognizes that not all suppliers offer the other notification methods described in the statute (cellular telephone applications, text messaging, or third-party notification systems), which all have underlying development and support costs. The cost of requiring multiple communication methods must be weighed against the potential benefit and customer demand for them. It is unclear whether there is enough consumer interest to warrant requiring each licensed electric supplier to incur costs to make all options available. To strike a balance, the authority will require that suppliers offer customers a choice between receipt of notification by either U.S. mail or email.”

The commissioners noted, “Nothing in this ruling precludes a supplier from developing a cell phone app or any other communication tool in response to market forces and consumer demand.”

Indeed, the authority found that, whether or not it would require a communications methodology such as texting, such new technology might streamline processing and enhance customer service.

“New technology can have both positive and negative consequences in the retail supplier market,” the commissioners said, adding, “Text messaging can limit a supplier’s ability to collect important customer account information, can be costly to install and maintain, and can delay rescission beyond the three‑day window. Such delay could harm market participants. However, were a supplier to implement an accurate two-way text message notification and cancellation system, it could dramatically streamline customer-supplier communication timelines and possibly distinguish itself in the market.”

At the same time, PURA proposed another change in customer communication requirements. Instead of mandating that retail energy suppliers must offer a separate website for customer communications, the authority now advises that, “… Suppliers [may] use a web page, embedded in a parent company’s website, to provide Connecticut‑specific generation rates and provide customer service.”

As a result of the proceeding, PURA issued four orders for compliance:

  1. No later than June 30, 2016, all licensed electric suppliers must offer at least two methods of notification to their customers: U.S. Mail and email. U.S. mail will be the default method of notification if a customer fails to make a selection. Suppliers are free to offer additional customer notification options and are not limited to the communications methods identified in the statute. However, when providing any required notification the supplier must allow for direct two‑way communication with each customer. Customers shall continue to have the option to change the method of notification at any time during their contracts.
  1. Effective as of the date of this final decision, suppliers may provide customer service through an Internet web page that may or may not be part of a parent company’s multistate website. The supplier must construct their page to display Connecticut‑specific information, and not information from other states, to Connecticut customers. Suppliers may do this through customer self-selection, zip code filtering, or other best practices adopted by the market.
  1. No later than June 30, 2016, all licensed electric suppliers must allow customers to cancel service through the same communication method by which they provide required customer notifications.
  1. No later than June 30, 2016, all licensed electric suppliers must inform customers that their contract will begin on the meter read date following acceptance of an enrollment by the electric distribution company (EDC).

The authority recognized the following as participants in this proceeding: Eversource, United Illuminating , Office of Consumer Counsel, National Energy Marketers Association, Retail Electric Supplier Association, and all electric suppliers licensed in Connecticut.

All parties will be offered an opportunity to provide written exceptions to and present oral arguments on the proposed final decision. PURA hopes to have the final rules in place by mid-2016.

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