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November 19, 2005

By Charles Mathewson

The biggest sources of complaints for Americans are the government, the cable company and the phone company. Their bigness makes it nearly impossible to satisfy customers. Without their bigness, they have no business.

Ma Bell, Baby Bell, Nynex, Verizon. The name changes. It's still the Phone Company. Generations of corporate conditioning have made us all humbled by the telecommunication giant.

For those of you too young to know, or too old to remember, The Bell System had a vise grip on its customers. The Phone Company (the name popularized in the great anti-hero flick "The President's Analyst") owned the lines, the switchboards and the telephones it installed in homes.

Customers rented the phones. No one in the United States had the right to own a telephone. The Phone Company regularly tested its lines to insure no more phones than allowed rang at inside its customers' homes.

People rationed long distance time to avoid bankruptcy.

Ma Bell dictated the terms of talking; her customers had no choice but to obey.

I remember my grandparents, who could remember phones without dials, complaining about service. My mother, an underpaid teacher, called me at college more than once from the pay phone at the corner. Late for payment, she had her service discontinued and couldn't afford the fee to reconnect.

What's changed? At core, not much. We own cell phones, but they need the network and we know who owns the network.

I subscribed to Vonage as soon as I could. We happily bid the Verizon landline good riddance. We pay Vonage $25 a month for unlimited service. Service, a word Verizon uses cruelly because its corporate culture cannot comprehend the word's meaning.

My wife read a Verizon advertisement. Two cell phones for $100. The battery in my phone had failed, rendering it useless.

Yeah, the salesman said, they design the batteries to last 18 months. Every time you replace a phone, you re-up your two-year contract. The boldness with which he told me how the company enslaves its customers nearly shocked me.

We wanted the $49.95 phones.

"That was last month's special," he said, in the afternoon of Oct. 30.

My wife attempted reason, saying, "But it was advertised last week."

"No," he said. "That was last month's deal."

The deal in whatever Verizon month we had found ourselves offered a $100 Motorola phone, a $30 Samsung phone with a $30 rebate on the Samsung. That sounded like $100 to us.

We walked out with two new phones, a receipt for $270 and a lie.

My son, 21 years old and making more an hour than his old man, wanted his own account. Years of experience with The Phone Company brought the phrase "termination fee" to the front of my mind.

I asked everyone we dealt with at the Verizon store, three employees, should we wait to remove him from the family plan before we triggered a new two-year contract. They each said we should buy the phones, he should start his own account, then we could remove him from ours.

A week later, he came home with his new phone and number.

I stopped into the Verizon store Saturday. Because I didn't want to buy another phone, I had to wait. After about 20 minutes a woman under a "Customer Service" sign deigned to speak to me.

"We can't do that here," she said. "You have to call customer service."

"But last week, you told me to come back to take him off our plan."

"No. We can't do that."

I called the number. Following the prompts, I waited for a human. I explained my situation.

"They told you the wrong thing in the store," a woman's voice said. "You can take him off your plan with a termination fee of $175."

After I objected, she said maybe if my son cancelled his service, we each sign a form in the store removing him from the plan and then he initiated his own service contract a second time, we would avoid the $175 fee. Otherwise, we would pay $10 a month for the next two years to have him on our plan although no one could access the service because he would have his own.

I work crazy hours. My son works crazier hours. We rarely have time together. We wasted nearly an hour early Saturday evening in the Verizon store. They offered us the choice of paying $175 for nothing now or $240 for nothing over time.

"Why won't you just do what you promised you would do?" I said.

Blank stares.

"C'mon Dad," he said. "I'll just pay the $175. You can't win."

Congratulations, your Bigness. Another generation humbled.




 
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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

2Shipping and activation fees waived with 1-year agreement. An Early Termination Fee (with periodic pro-rated reductions) applies if service is terminated before the end of the first 12 months. Additional restrictions may apply. See Terms of Service for details.

HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See www.vonage.com/911 for details.

** Certain call types excluded.

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