Phone system in central Europe tests willpower

March 19, 1993|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- When Westerners working in central Europe talk about "phone strategy," they usually don't mean the kind of telecommunications that corporations spend millions to develop and implement.

They're talking about survival skills that allow them to simply use the telephone.

"We do things like faxing to Washington in order to get a message to Prague," says Deborah Billig, an American consultant to a bank in Budapest, Hungary. "Getting calls through between Prague and Budapest is next to impossible."

"The strategy I adopt is to try and make all of my phone calls before 8:30 or after 5:00," says Mark Graham, of Coopers & Lybrand in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. "At that time, I can usually get a line."

Like millions of others in central Europe, they daily face one of the most trying tasks of life after communism: completing a phone call.

And because of the continuing poor quality of phone service, economic development in the region remains hobbled.

Throughout central Europe nearly 6 million people are waiting for a phone, and many of those customers still will not have one in five years. The region has only about 12 phone lines per 100 people, less than one-fourth the rate of the United States or many Western European nations. In parts of Warsaw, Poland, and other capitals, applications for new lines simply are rejected.

But getting a phone doesn't guarantee an end to frustration, either. Official statistics in Romania show that 97 percent of the phones break down at least once a year. In Prague, Budapest or Warsaw, completing a phone call can take a half-dozen or more tries. Once a connection is made, any conversation is constantly interrupted by pops, hiss, static, and shouts of "hallo, hallo" on crossed lines.

But telephone companies have made some progress in the last three years since the collapse of communism.

The Czech and Slovak republics, Poland and Hungary are embarking on extensive programs to install digital equipment and are laying hundreds of miles of fiber optic cables. Six countries in the region either have opened cellular mobile phone networks or have taken concrete steps toward doing so.

"The service here has actually improved quite a bit," says Pedro Pick, head of Arthur D. Little's Prague office. "It's not Switzerland or the U.S., but it's not bad."

Much of the improvement has come in international services -- important money-earners for telephone companies that need investment.

Phone rates are as low as a penny per local call with a monthly subscription fee of 30 cents. But international calling costs three to four times what it does in the United States and parts of Western Europe.

To cash in on this, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics and Poland are installing new international telephone exchanges. In Poland, high-volume customers can buy a connection to a special network, Komertel, which allows them direct access to international lines.

But the concentration on international calling has led to some strange distortions in service. Mr. Pick, for example, says he has had to resort tocalling via his U.S. office just to reach a number across town.

And while the phone companies have been installing lines at a record pace, waiting lists have been growing.

The lists have swelled in part due to increased commerce that demands more and better telephones, but also because people who had never dreamed they could get a phone in their lifetime now believe it is possible.

"Our plan of building new lines has been going forward," says Jiri Fucikovsky, a spokesman for the Czech phone company, SPT Praha, where the waiting list has grown by 40 percent in three years despite the addition of 200,000 lines.

There also has been more and more interest in the region among international telecommunications companies. All of the U.S. Bell companies have dabbled in the region with projects ranging from cellular networks to yellow pages; AT&T, Northern Telecom, Siemens, Alcatel and Ericsson are selling digital exchanges and fiber optic equipment; and countless smaller companies are marketing everything from fax machines to phone sex.

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