Bell Canada is firing back at accusations it is gouging party line users. The telco concedes it has made mistakes in assessing rates, but vehemently denies it was willful and pledges to make amends. The company is responding to a Part VII application filed by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre that suggests Bell has overcharged party line subscribers leasing equipment (NL, Aug. 27/02). PIAC maintains Bell applied forborne single line rates to the party line customers, even though those tariffs are still under regulation. The consumers’ group alleged that the telco was reluctant to provide full restitution to affected subscribers. "The company categorically rejects PIAC’s suggestions that the company failed to take appropriate action, once it became aware of an error in the rates it charged, and is particularly surprised at the tone of PIAC’s allegations," chief regulatory officer Sheridan Scott writes to the CRTC. "The facts set out below demonstrate that the company was already aware of the error and was taking corrective action for all affected customers. In these circumstances, the company finds PIAC’s innuendoes of negligence and stalling tactics particularly unacceptable." The problem arose three years ago when Bell established a separate rate and universal service order code (USOC) for regulated terminal sets. Most party line customers were switched to the new rate but some got overlooked in the confusion. Bell notes that since less than one per cent of subscribers are on shared lines, it was difficult for the mistake to be discovered. The error was spotted by Bell last January. The telco thought the mistake was an anomaly. "The company’s initial conclusion was that the problem may have been caused by errors made when new terminal set orders were keyed into the company’s billing system," Bell writes. "It was further assumed that incorrect USOCs had been assigned due to the fact that such orders were not common and customer service representatives (CSRs) were typically unfamiliar with the proper procedure." The company has set a refund policy in place, now that the mistake has been detected. Bell began sending out letters earlier this month to the appropriate customers telling them they are entitled to a refund, plus interest. The telco has put extra CSR staff on duty to handle the anticipated increase in calls from concerned subscribers. "Overall, approximately 29,730 active and non-active customers have been affected by the error, with refund entitlements between $0.30 (plus interest) and $45.25 (plus interest) and the average refund amount being approximately $35.18," Bell notes. "Of these, there are approximately 3,450 non-active customers (being customers who have disconnected from the Bell Canada network as a result of moving out of Bell Canada’s serving territory or other changes) entitled to an average refund of $16.19 plus interest. The company commits to making a good faith effort and to undertaking all commercially reasonable steps to find non-active customers and provide non-active customers (or their estate in the case of deceased customers) the appropriate refund." The firm rejects the six elements that PIAC requests as relief for the situation. It has already committed to rebate overpayments, thus nullifying one request. Bell thinks paying punitive damages would be "unreasonable." Similarly, it rejects the notion of posting security, as there is little likelihood Bell is going broke or taking it on the lam. Since Bell spotted the error on its own, there is no need for third-party audits or for compliance reports. It dismisses PIAC’s demand for reimbursement of its costs, claiming the lobby group’s filing was superfluous. Bell also questions PIAC’s call for greater deterrence.