Verizon under scrutiny by PSC

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Public Service Commission opened an investigation yesterday into hundreds of complaints from Verizon customers, some of whom said the phone company took two weeks or more to restore service after recent outages - delays that officials fear could create a public safety hazard.

PSC officials have logged between 200 and 300 complaints about Verizon repair service so far this year, including reports of difficulties in scheduling repair appointments and no-show repair crews. In its order, the PSC said that "unreasonable" delays meant that some consumers had no way to call 911, contact medical providers or connect security systems to monitoring services during the outages.

"Reliable telephone service is a necessity, not a luxury, and a seven- or ten-day delay (or longer) in restoring lost telephone service can threaten consumers' health and safety," the commission said in its order. "While some consumers have alternatives to Verizon's telephone service, such as wireless phones, many do not."

Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said yesterday that the company was still reviewing the order. She said the company, which has more than 2 million phone lines in the state, has a strong service record. The New York-based company does not have any other issues pending before the commission, Arnette said.

"Normally, we restore service to our customers as soon as possible," Arnette said. "We handle hundreds of thousands of issues for customers without complaint. There were a small number of them, but that doesn't mean we're not providing top-notch service to our customers."

Gov. Martin O'Malley raised concerns during his campaign last fall about weak regulation by the PSC, and since his appointees took over the regulatory body, it has shown a decidedly more activist bent.

The commission has sought to investigate the relationship between BGE and its parent company, Constellation Energy Group, and other potential factors in recent electric rate increases.

Yesterday's order shows that its gaze is also focused on telephone service and the other industries it regulates.

"It came to my attention that we had been getting what seemed to be an excessive number of complaints relating to the length of time it takes for people to get their service restored, in some cases a week or even weeks, which we think is a serious public safety concern," PSC Chairman Steven B. Larsen said in a telephone interview yesterday evening.

Larsen said that the complaint is in its preliminary stages but that the PSC aims to find out whether problems with service are widespread, what procedures Verizon has in place to deal with service problems and whether the company's staffing levels have changed.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor backs the commission's investigation.

"Governor O'Malley supports the PSC's efforts to fight for and protect Maryland consumers and hopes that Verizon will work quickly to address these complaints," Abbruzzese said.

The announcement came about a week after severed Verizon cables shut down the state's judiciary computer system for a day. Employees at all of the state's circuit and district courts were unable to access computerized databases and were forced to write warrant, bail and case data by hand on July 26. The cut cables also left more than 6,000 businesses and homes in Annapolis and Parole without telephone service for several days.

PSC spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards said that commissioner staffers have been aware of a high volume of complaints about Verizon for some time. PSC officials first raised the issue with the company in December, she said. During the first seven months of 2006, the PSC logged 170 complaints related to Verizon repair service.

Arnette could not say how long it typically takes to restore service. She noted that each situation is different. If a cable is cut, for example, she said the repairs can take days.

Verizon, formerly C&P; Telephone, is the leading provider of local phone service in Maryland. It also provides long-distance, wireless, broadband, data, video and global IP services.

Edwards said the PSC is not investigating any other companies that offer local service.

Verizon must provide a number of documents by Monday afternoon, including those related to consumer reports of lost phone service in the past two years and reports identifying the staff, contractors and financial resources that are devoted to answering consumer complaints.

The commission ordered Verizon officials to appear Wednesday.

"We're going to be addressing it and responding to the commission," Arnette said. "But overall, we think we provide top-quality service."

Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

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