In case of dead phone line, local companies are clueless

May 26, 2002|By JAY HANCOCK

WHO KILLED the pastor's telephone for two weeks? Was it Verizon Communications in the switching office with the monkey wrench? Was it AT&T in the boiler room with the sales rep?

Or was it the pastor himself, in the study with - I don't know - the communion chalice?

The answer matters, because the maddening phone problems at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ellicott City are common. Solving the mystery of the minister's missing dial tone might help unravel another puzzle: why local telephone competition has faltered in Maryland.

It started, as dark dramas often do, with a call from a telemarketer. Would First Lutheran be interested in an AT&T package of long-distance and local phone service? At big savings? Why, yes. Office manager Rosemary Fisher signed up and waited expectantly for seamless service at a sensible price.

AT&T was able to offer the church local calling, in addition to long-distance, because by law Verizon must rent discount local phone connections to other companies that want to resell the service to Maryland homes and businesses.

Verizon, once called Bell Atlantic, is the traditional local phone company. It owns the capillaries carrying signals "the last mile" to the receiver in your kitchen. Lawmakers figured that by forcing Verizon and other local outfits to lease lines to outsiders like AT&T, local phone competition would grow and consumers would benefit.

That was the, uh, theory.

On March 29, Good Friday, the Rev. Glenn Ludwig lost telephone service in his house, a brick rancher a few cubits from First Lutheran. The outage came after office manager Fisher had called to correct a problem with the original AT&T order, and it was obvious that the phone companies had made things worse.

Obvious, that is, except to the phone companies. They blamed the church and said the line inside the parsonage must be faulty. Your problem, they suggested. They were wrong, as facts would show, but exonerating the pastor brought the phone no closer to resuscitation.

Fisher, a pleasant, witty Englishwoman, then spent two weeks in the inner circles of telephone Hades trying to get the trouble fixed. Three hours a morning on the phone to AT&T - most of it on hold - was not uncommon, she says.

She spoke, at various times, to Karen, Denise, Tom, Justin, LaKeisha, Bonnie, Amber, Steve and Joe at AT&T and Mike and Dan and Susan at Verizon, as shown by her meticulous notes, forwarded to regulators. Each company blamed the other, and nothing got done.

Bad phones hurt the efficiency of any organization, and at First Lutheran the dispensation of spiritual succor and other ecclesiastical products was seriously impeded. When a car accident put a Sunday school teacher in the hospital, the lack of a phone required somebody to drive to Ludwig's house with the news. Earlier, Ludwig missed a call from a parishioner seeking comfort for a sick friend; the friend died before the pastor could visit.

The only reason the phone got turned back on after 15 days was a chance encounter in a convenience store between Ludwig and a Verizon technician who guided him from the bureaucratic thicket. The dial tone returned that afternoon, April 12.

In all, Fisher figures she and colleagues spent more than 15 hours making scores of calls to more than two dozen people to get one phone line activated.

Hard to believe? I might think so, too, except that the same thing happened to me a few weeks later. Volunteering my family for hazardous consumer-research duty to serve readers of The Sun, I requested local phone service with Cavalier Telephone, another vendor leasing Verizon's lines.

Same result. Dead phone. Suggestions by Cavalier that the problem was inside the house. Unreturned phone calls. Missed appointments by Verizon technicians. Mutual blame by Verizon and Cavalier. Thirteen days with no phone.

Whodunit? All companies were unsatisfactory, but Fisher pins most blame on Verizon. After all, Verizon had the motive: not wanting to rent its lines to rivals at low rates. It had the opportunity: It controls most wires and switches. And it had a string of priors: Fines for denying access to local rivals such as Cavalier and AT&T.

Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell acknowledges the company is not perfect, but he says that it handles most orders flawlessly and that often competitive carriers such as AT&T are to blame.

Maybe, but I have my own culprit: Congress, which created a system in which Verizon must rent wires to its enemies, nobody seems in charge, and new, advanced phone lines are left on the drawing board because providers can piggyback on Verizon's lines for cheap.

After its brief experiment, First Lutheran is back with Verizon, deciding, as many consumers have, that it wants no part of local phone choice. A few days ago some sales folks asked the church again if it wanted to switch phone vendors.

"I ranted at them," Rosemary Fisher says.

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