Busy Signals


Warsaw-- You wait more than 12 years, on average, for a telephone in Poland. And when you've finally got it, you wonder why you bothered.

For using it is all but impossible.

An attempt to raise an electronic mail service in Western Europe illustrates the point.

Copenhagen: busy signal.

Frankfurt: busy signal.

Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam: busy signal.

Three hours of dialing, between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.-- the allegedly off-peak period -- elicited only that irritating pip-pip. It is doubly infuriating because it means not that the evening is a a gossipy one electronically but the collapse of the overloaded Polish lines to Western Europe.

So forget E-mail. Let's settle for simple voice-to-voice contact.

There is no direct dial to the United States from Poland. You have to dial AT&T; USA Direct in Western Europe or use the Polish operator.

AT&T; USA Direct numbers in Western Europe were, predictably, busy. Their counterparts in Budapest and Prague were pre-empted by a curt Polish voice announcing, to vindictive musical accompaniment, "Ta-ta-ta TA Ta. There is no such number. Ta-ta-ta TA Ta."

Poland's international operator was, as always, busy. A special exchange for diplomats didn't answer.

So, there you have it. A perfectly good telephone, only slightly scarred by frenzied, frustrated bashing.

And no way to dial.

An enraged acquaintance once threw her telephone out the window. But Poles are more philosophical. "Tak jest u nas," they say. "That's the way things are here."

They chuckle at foreign naivete. How can you expect long distance calls when everyone knows it takes good luck to connect across town? (In fact a call to an emergency E-mail backup number in Warsaw produced only a truncated ring and a dead line.)

For local lines, too, are overloaded, in large part with wrong numbers, in similarly large part with callers in one suburb phoning acquaintances in another in order to get a message to a third and, in small part, with people getting through as intended.

On paper, Poland's telephone service looks fantastic. Local calls cost a mere three cents, and long distance operators provide several classes of service, from the ordinary call to the "blyskawiczna" or "lightning speed" call.

In fact, local calls can cost up to ten times the stipulated amount as wrong numbers run up the bill.

However, it is in the long distance field that the true awfulness of the Polish telephone service hits you.

An "ordinary" out-of-town call might confine you for up to a week, as you wait isolated in your apartment on the caprices of crumbling cables and uncaring operators. Sometimes you're lucky, and the call comes in less than 24 hours. But often you have to get in supplies, advise your employer and hunker down for the duration.

The next category, "urgent," costs double but must be put through within an hour. Almost invariably it arrives at the 59th minute, for glasses of tea and cigarettes take priority over mere urgent calls. The slightest miscalculation on an "urgent" call, though, and it misses its deadline and is then transformed into an "ordinary" call. See above.

Within the country, hope lies in the "lightning speed" call. Polish lightning is laconic, however, and usually takes some 20 minutes to flash down the telephone wires. Indeed the operator wastes many valuable split seconds by inquiring how long you are willing to wait, after which period she cancels the call.

So what's to be done about Poland's telephones, the number one stumbling block to much-needed foreign investment?

In line with the current philosophy of making Poles pay more for less, the first plan is to double the rates, according to press reports.

People convinced they are already paying for five wrong numbers to every intended connection wrote indignant letters to newspapers. Jerzy Rewerski, president of the Warsaw branch of the Consumers' Federation, termed the telephone service "plain fraud".

His organization has urged its national council to sue the telephone company, but council secretary Grazyna Rokicka said that the federation was hampered by unclear legal status, the onus of proof and lack of money. "The Justice Ministry has yet to decide which collective bodies can bring lawsuits," she said. "And even then the case is difficult to prove. Everyone knows the telephones don't work, but how do you prove it? In order to sue we must have a technical expert's opinion, but we don't have the money to pay the expert."

In the last year, some improvement has allegedly been made. AT&T; set up some international exchanges and an overlay network for about $10 million.

Currently, the American giant is negotiating a deal for the production in Poland of telecommunications equipment, the construction of local area networks, and consulting services. It is looking at a $200 million loan to Poland, with a further $800 million in a future follow-up.

The World Bank has also announced plans to lend Poland $120 million to improve its telephone service, which the bank described as one of the worst in Europe.

The aid can't come soon enough.

It took an hour to check these details with the telecommunications ministry.

Just couldn't get through.

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