When home phone's out, who should pay cell bill?

Consuming Interests

November 07, 2006|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

Thanks to wireless phones and electronic mail, having the home telephone go on the fritz no longer means losing contact with the outside world. So on Sept. 8 when Gayle Levy found no dial tone on her Pikesville land line, she was distressed, but not put out. She had her cell phone to alert Verizon to the trouble. But as it turned out, her trouble was just beginning.

Verizon informed Levy that it would take 10 days to send someone out to fix the problem. With the land line out, Levy began relying on her cell phone for all calls going out and all calls coming in to her and her husband.

That kind of usage is usually no big whoop for a land line, since customers usually pay a flat rate. But on a cell phone, it'll cost ya'. By the end of the 10 days, Levy racked up Cingular charges totaling $288.69 - waaaay over the average $65 to $72 she usually pays the wireless company for 450 anytime minutes a month.

Levy says Verizon should pay her Cingular bill.

"Half of those calls were to service people and the Public Service Commission to complain about how long Verizon was taking. ... There was no storm. The weather was perfectly fine. It shouldn't take 10 days."

After contacting the Public Service Commission and Office of the People's Counsel, both state offices that monitor utilities in Maryland, she then called U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's office on Sept. 14. Cardin's office contacted Verizon and, in an Oct. 9 letter, Verizon informed Levy that it was applying $57.92 to her account for time spent without service and $35.08 for an additional 30-day service credit for her inconvenience.

Unsatisfied, Levy says that leaves $195.69 of her Cingular bills.

"I feel that it's an abuse by Verizon," Levy says. "It was an inconvenience, and I want the money I have to pay to Cingular."

At first blush, 10 days does seem like an excessive wait.

But is 10 days a lot if a tropical storm blew through seven days earlier, wiping out phone service to 45,000 people in the Potomac region? Sandra Arnette, a Verizon spokeswoman, says it took the company one to two weeks to restore service to most customers.

So while Levy's home phone problem might not have been caused by a storm, the repair time was hampered by a storm that forced Verizon to declare an emergency situation and pull in 400 employees from the Baltimore area to work overtime to restore service.

"Gayle Levy lost service during the time that Tropical Storm Ernesto hit our area. Our trouble load in the region that includes Maryland was almost four times higher than normal, and restoral times for some customers, unfortunately, were longer than normal," Arnette says in an e-mail.

No one ever told Levy that a storm delayed repairs. But Levy insists, "The storm had nothing to do with the problem I had with my phone."

Let's cover the issues one at a time.

First: Verizon's service time.

Someone should have told Levy about the storm. Perhaps she would have been more understanding.

PSC spokesman Bethany Gill says there is no strict guideline covering length of service time for utilities. Under the Code of Maryland Regulations, "Each utility shall take appropriate measures to assure that service interruptions shall be kept to a minimum." Check. Verizon brought in extra workers.

The code also says, "If unusual repairs are required, or rehabilitation programs or other factors preclude clearing of reported troubles promptly, when practical, the customer shall be so notified and an estimated time given as to when the trouble will be cleared." Check. Verizon said it would take 10 days.

So Verizon operated under the code. But why is it that Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. took five days to restore power to 200,000 customers, yet it took Verizon up to two weeks to restore service to less than one-fourth that number?

Under normal conditions, Verizon tries to get all customers back online within 24 to 48 hours, Arnette says. But she contends that comparing the restoration times of different types of utilities is comparing apples to oranges. With Ernesto, work crews had to pump water out of manholes, dry out cables, resplice cables, test phone lines and replace corroded network devices, she said. Hundreds, and possibly thousands, of feet of damaged cable were also replaced underground and on utility poles.

Now for the second issue: the amount of money Levy is owed.

Under the code, "If the service is interrupted, appropriate action shall be taken to the extent possible to restore service within 24 hours following notification to the customers. Appropriate adjustment or refunds shall be made for a telephone out of service longer than 24 hours, per utility's tariff."

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