Voice-dialing service ends

Verizon has begun cutting off an unprofitable service that let vision-impaired callers say the numbers they wanted to dial. "That's something that helped me be relatively self-reliant," a dismayed subscriber says.

February 26, 2005|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore's Steve Topchik received a letter saying Verizon Communications Inc. would be ending its voice-dialing service, it was anything but good news. Topchik's vision is severely impaired, a result of injuries the Army veteran said he received in Vietnam, and voice-dialing helped keep him connected with the world.

"I just couldn't believe it," said Topchik, 60. "That's something that helped me be relatively self-reliant."

Topchik is one of 60,000 Verizon customers from Virginia to Maine -- including 4,000 in Maryland -- who relied on the voice-activated dialing service to call family members, friends, doctors, the fire department or local police.

As an alternative, Verizon is offering users a voice-activated dialing terminal that attaches to their phones at what it says is a deeply discounted price of about $200, including taxes and shipping. Verizon is also offering disabled customers unlimited free dialing assistance through specially trained operators.

The price is steep enough to put the terminal out of reach for people such as him, said Topchik, who is retired on a fixed disability income. And for a person who has enjoyed the independence of voice-dialing, dependence on operator assistance will be an ego-deflating experience, Topchik contends.

"It irks me, it really does," Topchik said. "Am I supposed to live life without a telephone? I'm retired. I'm not making any money now. I'm living on a limited income."

It's not a new story, said Linda J. McCarty, director of public relations for the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind. People who are blind or have limited vision often have to pay extra for access to technologies that others take for granted.

The $200 voice-dialing terminal is one example, and the Internet is another, she said. In late 2003, the federation demonstrated software that can "talk" a blind person through specially programmed Web sites, but it costs hundreds of dollars.

Voice-dialing, which cost $3.75 to $5.50 a month depending on the market, was never a big seller and consequently was a substantial money-loser for Verizon, said Jim Smith, director of media relations for Verizon's Retail Markets Group. The number of subscribers peaked at about 90,000 a year ago.

That's when the hardware and software vendors Verizon relied on said they were leaving the business. Not only would those suppliers be ending support services, they also were halting the sale of spare parts, Smith said.

Verizon would not identify the vendors but said three companies were involved.

Faced with those problems and the service's low market penetration -- fewer than one-half of 1 percent of Verizon customers -- Verizon concluded that it wasn't worth investing the tens of millions of dollars it would take to construct its own system, Smith said.

Verizon stopped accepting new subscribers and told customers the service would end this year. About two weeks ago, subscribers received letters notifying them that it would begin shutting down the service Feb. 19 and detailed the alternatives. The shutdown is in progress.

Verizon does not know how many subscribers use the service to overcome handicaps such as blindness or paralysis. But Smith acknowledged that the company's Center for Customers With Disabilities has probably received "several hundred" complaints.

Although the service was a money-loser for the company, Verizon focused on the vendor issues in its filings with the Maryland Public Service Commission, in which the company sought approval to end the service. PSC staffers recommended that the five commissioners approve Verizon's request, which was heard and approved at the commission's Jan. 11 administrative meeting, said Christine Nizer, manager of external relations for the PSC.

Notice of Verizon's plans was posted on the PSC Web site and "nobody voiced concerns" at the meeting, said Nizer, who was present. The Maryland People's Counsel did not oppose the request either, she said.

Verizon showed "that they had no manufacturer support and that they were giving customers different options," Nizer said.

Fewer than 150 of the 4,000 Maryland customers who subscribed to voice-dialing have purchased the new terminals, Smith said.

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