What's wrong with the phone company?

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 topic.

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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 frequently reactive.
  4. 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 proposition.
  5. 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 phone users.
  6. 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" incompatible systems.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

By: James Wetterau, Jr., http://www.2600.com/covers/wi951.gif


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