For once, Verizon couldn't just hide

August 10, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Maybe it was all grandstanding. Maybe after failing to do anything about the 72 percent BGE electric rate increase, the Public Service Commission was in the market for another target to beat up on. Maybe all the tough talk at its public hearing Wednesday will come to naught.

I don't care. If you've ever taken off from work to wait for a phone repair crew that never showed up, you had to love watching Verizon officials trying to explain an increase of their own: a 50 percent rise in consumer complaints to the PSC.

For once, Verizon couldn't hide in the dark corners of its press-one-for-this, press-two-for-that automated answering maze. It couldn't say, oh, someone will be there between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., sorry, can't give you a narrower window. And, best of all, it couldn't just not show up.

I had no idea being stood up by Verizon was so common, and even acceptable: The company can miss 20 percent of its service appointments and still be in compliance with the PSC. And yet even with this rather generous standard -- two out of every 10 customers left idling at home, no closer to getting a working phone -- Verizon failed to meet it five out of the first six months of this year.

What's the problem? Steven B. Larsen, the new chairman of the PSC, demanded to know.

He didn't get an answer -- what a surprise: The company accused of keeping customers waiting needed more time itself to figure out why it keeps customers waiting. But merely asking the question is an improvement over the past. Surprisingly, a Verizon official said after the hearing that this is the first time the company has been called before the PSC on customer service issues.

Yes, this is the same PSC, in name only, that became an issue in last year's governor's race, when then-candidate Martin O'Malley accused it of excessive coziness with the utilities it's supposed to regulate, BGE, in particular. After O'Malley won, he appointed three new members to the PSC, but the 72 percent rate increase, after some deferrals, went into effect this summer.

Still, with three of five members newly appointed (a fourth was reappointed), it's a new PSC. And it was the three new appointees who participated in Wednesday's hearing, called to address the 300-some complaints against Verizon that the commission has received this year.

Verizon's representatives said what those in the hot seat of government hearings tend to say: There actually isn't a problem. Well, if there is a problem, it's not as serious as it seems. And in any event, we can't answer all your requests because some involve proprietary information that could be twisted by competitors.

Well, yes, I would guess that if it became publicly known how long it takes Verizon to fix a phone line, a competitor could crow about that in a bid to steal customers.

But that does speak to a larger problem raised at the hearing: how the PSC's 30-year-old telephone regulations have lagged far behind the realities of today's technology and marketplace, applying as they do only to Verizon and not to the many competitors that have since sprung up. In fact, it's become a complete muddle out there in telecommunications.

Verizon is heavily invested in a new fiber-optic network, which has a TV component to compete with Comcast's primary offering. Comcast, for its part, now offers phone service, which, of course, competes with Verizon's original service. And everyone offers an Internet connection.

This seems like it should benefit consumers -- the more the choices, the merrier we should be, right?

But somehow, more options seem to have spawned more complaints. I thought PSC Commissioner Susanne Brogan hit the mark when she suggested that Verizon's push to sell its newer services, particularly to business customers, was coming at the expense of serving the company's traditional, residential telephone customers.

Verizon lawyer Leigh A. Hyer "absolutely" and "unequivocably" denied this.

I'll take her on her word, but I think Brogan is on to something. At a time of greater competition, when companies are fighting over the same customers, sales seem to have taken precedence over service.

Yes, you can switch if you later become unhappy with the customer service of the company you've signed with, but that can involve time, money and perhaps one of those dreaded service calls.

Surely it's not just Verizon's service that's wanting. Wouldn't you love to know what Comcast's records show? But that happens to have been the source of my own teeth-gnashing experience, which like that of surely other cranky consumers, didn't prompt a report to the PSC.

In January -- ironically enough, the only month of the first six this year that Verizon complied with the 20 percent standard -- my phone line at home died, and I was given a repair appointment for about a week later.

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