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My utilities company only shows the past 3 years of bills on their user portal. I emailed them asking them to send me historical data (bills) from the very beginning of my service. They said they'll do that but will charge me "administrative research fee" of $25/hour for $175 total lol. Can they do that? How do I not have free access to my own bills?

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    You did have free access to your own bills, but apparently you did not keep them. Now you want them to have somebody spend time to look them up, compile them, and send them to you, all of which takes the time of someone there to do.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 19, 2023 at 15:56
  • @JonCuster as a data engineer I can tell you that unless your database is a complete dumpster fire, it shouldn't take more than 10 minutes to log into it, put in an account name and pull up all the data ... Why would I be keeping my bills if they're already kept for me on a digital format that's easily accessible?
    – Raksha
    Oct 19, 2023 at 16:10
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    @Raksha, depending on where you live, privacy regulations might force the company to delete some of the data and to keep others for tax reasons. Which leads to the problem of reassembling the invoices.
    – o.m.
    Oct 19, 2023 at 16:40
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    "Why would I be keeping my bills if they're already kept for me on a digital format that's easily accessible?" Why should they be keeping your bills if they are sent to the customer in a format that is easily saved? And I'm not a data engineer, but speaking from experience not all archived business records are as retrievable in 10 minutes as you suggest. Unless the system is set up to accommodate frequent queries such as yours... Oct 19, 2023 at 17:35
  • @MichaelHall because maybe they will use that later as a part of bigger data set to figure out tends? ... to, I dunno, improve operations, reduce cost and inefficiencies, enhance customer service, etc, etc.
    – Raksha
    Oct 19, 2023 at 18:11

2 Answers 2

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As a data scientist, you should be aware that laws regarding the handling of customer data vary from country to country. Since you did not give any details, I can only give a generic answer:

  • In most countries, companies have both a requirement to archive business data for tax and accounting purposes, and a requirement to delete personal data as soon as the legitimate reason for keeping it is gone. Invoices may be the kind of data which is kept for a decade or so for tax audits, or only the accounts need to be kept and the invoices become irrelevant when the time has passed to contest their validity. (Ongoing litigation would be an exception, of course.)
  • Most large companies spend a lot of money to make routine processes cheaper. Either with some sort of self-service portal, or by making them so clear that relatively low-skilled clerks can do them.
    Any request which falls outside this pattern needs to go to better-paid staff. Those who are allowed to enter free-form queries on the customer database will be a very small proportion of the total workforce. The $25 you mention are impossible to put into context as long as you do not give the currency and the local wages, but in the US or western Europe, the actual cost of having an engineer look for documents in a database if they exist should be well over USD25/hour. If they need to be recreated from raw data, things get even more expensive.
  • Depending on where you live, you might be able to file a data access request under rules like the GDPR. If you are lucky, this will get you all your invoices. If you are less lucky, you get three years of invoices and a bunch of incomprehensible database entries. Or just the incomprehensible entries, if the recent invoices are generated on the fly from a database.
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One important part of the law to understand is that utilities are monopolies and are heavily regulated by the government, typically your state utilities commission.

A unregulated monopoly historically leads to unfair pricing that hinders overall economic growth. So, the utilities commission must set prices in a fair manner. This is done by finding the allowable costs, dividing it fairly over the customer base, and adding a percentage profit for investor-owned utilities... this is called cost-plus pricing.

Government regulators scrutinize costs carefully, since abuse can and has occurred when utilities inflate costs to get more profit. Only necessary costs are allowed. For example, fixing power lines downed by a storm is an necessary and allowable cost and is recovered by rates. Buying workers free lunch every day is not.

The key is you're asking the utility to do something (obtain archival data) that a) most people don't need, and so b) hasn't been authorized by the utilities commission to be included in normal rates. Therefore the company cannot do this for free. If they did do this for free, it would increase the rates everybody pays, without reasonably benefiting them.

Instead, they have a specific authorized rate for gathering this data that they must charge you.

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