Bell Atlantic rings hollow on speedy phone hookups Residential customers forced to wait several days for installation

December 09, 1997|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

In the telecommunications industry, everything seems to be moving faster and faster. Data networks transmit libraries of information in seconds; pagers and call forwarding systems track people down immediately anywhere in the world.

But when it comes to getting new residential phone service, be prepared to wait.

Bell Atlantic Corp., the dominant provider of phone service in Maryland, says it can take up to five business days until a phone has a dial tone.

"Three to five business days is about normal. We're trying to stick to that," said Sandra Arnette, a company spokeswoman.

In this wired age of instant communication and multiple lines, that interval rubs some customers the wrong way.

Melanie Villacarlos, who works at an apartment-finding service in Parkville, waited five working days when she moved recently from her parents' house in Towson to her own house on Philadelphia Road near Franklin Square Hospital.

She used her cellular phone during the wait. "My [cellular] bill's probably going to be outrageous," Villacarlos said.

For Mark and Meg von Paris, the wait for phone service at their new Lutherville house was even longer -- eight days.

"To me it was ridiculous to have to wait more than two days. We had cable in one day but we didn't have a phone. There's something wrong with that," said Meg von Paris.

"I went out to my driveway to use my car phone," she said. "I can't wait to see my bill."

Deirdre Nissenson, a Baltimore market researcher, has moved three times within the last year and a half. Her first move, from New Jersey to a restored carriage house in Fells Point, was accompanied by a 10-day wait for phone service.

"It was ridiculous, she said. "For 10 days I was doing consulting work from the Ze Mean Bean cafe."

For her last move, Nissenson said, she put her foot down, recounting her past experience and telling Bell Atlantic, "Let's get this right the first time." She had service immediately upon moving in.

John Sayles of the state's Office of People's Counsel, which represents consumer interests before the Public Service Commission, said a 1996 PSC staff report proposed five working days as a benchmark for installations.

But Peyton Wynns, chief of the industry analysis division of the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, said that exceeded the average.

"The industry average is about two days," he said. Last year, he said, Bell Atlantic reported an average wait of 2.5 days for residential service.

In some parts of the country, service can be initiated by throwing a switch, Wynns said.

That's what SBC Communications Inc.'s Pacific Bell unit does in Northern California, according to spokesman John Britton.

He said many residences are hooked up with what is known as a soft dial tone, which allows phone lines to be turned off and on instantly from a central office. Service at those homes is activated within two days.

Britton said quick phone service is especially important in the high-technology hotbeds of the Bay Area.

"Extra telephone lines are going like hot cakes," he said "Everybody wants them. The one-phone house has gone the way of the one-car garage. We've got people with four or five phones in a residence."

In Maryland, on the other hand, most residential service calls require a technician to go to a telephone pole or box in an apartment house to connect the switching office to the home.

In reference to a soft dial tone, John Dillon, Bell Atlantic's vice president for external affairs, said Bell Atlantic was "moving in that direction" but declined to specify a timetable.

Gail Evans, president of Local 2100 of the Communications Workers of America, the union that represents Bell Atlantic employees, attributed the lag time to a long-term Bell Atlantic strategy of focusing on repairing faulty lines as fast as possible rather than adding facilities to deal with growth.

"They got behind the 8-ball when the world said, 'Yes, we can afford a second line,' " Evans said.

And while Bell Atlantic has been adding workers, she said, the work force has not kept pace with the the demand for services.

Arnette, the Bell Atlantic spokeswoman, said the company was moving to meet demand.

"We have had some retirements, but we've been hiring aggressively in the last couple of years," she said.

"The bottom line is, when we see demand for new services, we try to meet customer needs, and if that means hiring new people, that's what we do."

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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