This really requires a book-length answer. Every time I've tried to
compose an answer I've given up in despair. I've spent literally days
thinking about this problem, and a full answer still evades me. Why
do people get sick? How do you solve the world's problems? What's
wrong with the phone company?
One cannot expect a capsule response to such questions.
Instead I'm going to offer some random, discursive thoughts. If you
really want to know, these things might help you find out, but I'm
afraid you'll have to do your own research. If you wish to talk to me
about the details, though, I'll happily engage in a dialogue on the
- Monopoly. In the 16 years since divestiture of its subidiary
companies, the regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs), AT&T, as
well as other phone companies including the RBOC's themselves, the
other former components of "the Bell system" and their competitors
have slowly learned to adapt to a competitive environment. But this
has been a hard lesson for a company that 16 years ago was more like a
governmental agency than a normal commerical enterprise. AT&T on the
day before divestiture employed over *one million* people. This means
that roughly one in every 100 employed Americans worked for "the phone
company". This astonishing size and level of centralization
accustomed the employees of that business to a bureaucratic, sluggish,
centrally organized structure. When the organization hasn't failed,
employees with a bad attitude, excellent job security, a strong union,
or highly protective sweetheart contracts often have.
- Regulation. To this day "common carriers" of phone service have
special responsibilities and are hemmed in by regulations in their
every action. The "tarriff" governing service and prices throughout
the U.S. takes a few large bookcases to hold. You try disentangling
that mess and doing nationwide business!
- Seismic changes. The landscape is shifting, upending the phone
companies. As they flail about, trying to recover their balance in
response to packet-switched networks, such as the internet, wireless
technologies, satellite communications, and other novelties, they make
costly mistakes. If giants start to fall, even the smaller
competitors can be hurt. Phone companies are nervous, edgy and
- Technology is getting harder, but the technicians aren't getting
smarter. Customers do more with the PSTN (public switched telephone
network), have a greater variety of choice in equipment, and suffer
from more bizarre interactions between devices and technologies. A
centrally owned and operated network requires the owner and operator
to keep up with all the end points, an increasingly difficult
- Snoops in the government want more and more help. Not content with
the wiretapping abilities they had, the government finally achieved a
wish list item that federal law enforcement authorities had dreamt of
for decades. In 1994, the U.S. Congress passed the "Comunications
Assistance for Law Enforcement Act", and budgeted $500,000,000 to
helping reimburse the telcos for their compliance costs. The telcos
have complained that the government has nickled and dimed them on the
costs and filed suit for relief. Since then he FCC has delayed some
of the target dates for transition, but overall this move has added
still more chaos, regulation, and points of control to an already
troubled system. Similarly, last year the U.S. Congress required that
cell phone providers enable tracking technology to locate phone users.
Though theoretically the taxpayer bears these costs, it seems likely
that some of the work required gets passed on as extra costs to the
- When it isn't the U.S. Federal government messing things up, other
nations' stupid governments in charge of various national Postal,
Telegraph and Telephone organizations (PTTs) often intentionally or
unintentionally thwart compatability, either to offer trade protection
to their national companies, or in the quixotic pursuit of "better"
- Good quality phone service is a hard problem. Instead of allowing
the consumer choice in quality of service, traditionally regulations
have set high barriers to entry by demanding a near-perfect,
one-size-fits-all solution. This has required a few gigantic
behemoths, instead of small, flexible players.
- The breakup in 1984. While competition has brought prices down and
made the phone companies more competitive, breaking AT&T up did cause
a huge amount of temporary chaos, as employees of the various
organizations had to reinvent their ways of doing business. In some
cases, employees who probably hoped to "move up" in one or another
part of the organization discovered that their career paths literally
no longer existed. This blow hurt the phone company for a while.
- Things NYNEX has personally put me through: overbilling, dropped
connections, repair visits being required every week for eight
consecutive weeks even after they knew the cause of the problem, a
small business phone outage that took about four business days to fix,
including spending about eight hours on the phone with them, several
accidental T1 disconnections where someone mistakenly flipped a
switch, accidental cutoffs of two ISPs I have used, trouble ordering
service, and generally poor customer service. I estimate they've
easily cost me three work weeks of time dealing with their problems in
the last four years.
Those are just some of the obvious problems.