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Verizon says it missed over 20% of service calls

The Baltimore Sun

Verizon Maryland Inc. violated state regulations by missing more than 20 percent of the service appointments it scheduled with phone customers in five of the first six months of the year, the phone giant acknowledged in a state hearing yesterday.

The company provided the information while defending its service record during a sometimes-tense two-hour hearing in downtown Baltimore with the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates the utility. Commissioners on Friday ordered Verizon executives to turn over documents and attend the hearing, saying the agency received 300 complaints this year about the utility's service - or 50 percent more than a year ago.

Some regulators grew frustrated yesterday when executives from Maryland's largest telephone provider could not explain how long it generally takes to fix a problem or why so many people say they had to wait days or weeks for their service to be restored after an outage. When Verizon executives said they did not have enough time to collect the information to answer those questions, regulators gave the utility two more weeks to turn over data and present a plan to improve service.

Regulators will decide then whether to hold more hearings or take other action.

Still, Verizon officials defended the company during the hearing and addressed regulators' concerns about the complaints they have received.

Leigh A. Hyer, Verizon Maryland's general counsel, said the company was exceeding other state standards, such as the number of complaints it logs from customers about their phone lines. Some of the missed appointments, she said, could be the result of a crew showing up 10 minutes late. The company said it records all late and canceled appointments as missed in its reports to the state.

"We provide good, quality service, and in the scheme of things the number of complaints is low," Hyer said. "We don't believe there is a service crisis."

But regulators said no one would have called the commission about minor complaints.

"We didn't call this hearing because we got calls your technician was 10 minutes late," said Commissioner Lawrence Brenner. "We got 300 calls from people who waited days, sometimes weeks."

State regulations require telephone companies to answer at least 80 percent of their service calls on time.

Hyer said the company has more than 3 million lines in Maryland, which the commission says amounts to 84 percent of the market. Other information about Verizon's Maryland business was not released because commissioners have not decided what should remain out of the public view. Verizon argued that much of its data is proprietary for competitive reasons.

But Steven B. Larsen, the new chairman of the commission, said the public has a right to know why Verizon misses appointments and why it sometimes takes so long to restore phone service. He said the service problems were not just annoying, they were a health and safety issue because people without cell phones could not call for help. Verizon said those without cell phones are given service priority.

Larsen and other commissioners asked Verizon executives if the company, faced with competition from other kinds of phone service providers, was focused less on its traditional copper lines and more on its fiber-optic cables that can bring high-speed Internet, cable television and phone service.

Verizon officials said the company has enough workers to handle all of its businesses, but they could not provide details.

Other commissioners said collecting all the data was crucial to determining the depth of the problem. Brenner said he thought the complaints that regulators have received were the tip of the iceberg.

"You have to get really frustrated to make a formal complaint to the PSC," he said. " ... You know there are a lot more back there with complaints. ... We're about seeing what you can do structurally to change it, and it's better if you come along willingly and not being dragged."

Some Verizon customers did not call the commission but told The Sun that they had trouble with their telephone service.

Jim Marler said his Baltimore City phone was emitting a buzzing noise. He said it took seven Verizon technicians over 1 1/2 years to fix the problem.

"It is very difficult to speak to anyone at Verizon," he said. "They will do anything to avoid a conversation with the customer."

Mary Joan Levin of Baltimore County said she didn't know that she could report Verizon to state regulators.

When her telephone service was interrupted last month, Levin said she called Verizon and was told it would take 10 to 12 days for it to be fixed. After informing the company that she had a medical condition, the company said someone would arrive the next day, but the crew did not show. They came the following day but not when they promised to arrive, she said.

"We are at the mercy of these conglomerates," Levin said.

Verizon said it would look into their accounts.

Hyer said the company would work with regulators, noting that executives believe Verizon has never been called before the commission in the past over customer complaints. But Hyer said after yesterday's hearing that the company felt it was unfair that its newer phone service rivals are not subject to the state's 30-year-old service standards - such as those offering VoIP, or voice over Internet protocol, which requires a high-speed Internet connection.

LaWanda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the panel is in the early stages of considering whether to bring other phone, cable and Internet providers under its regulation.

As for Verizon, Edwards said, regulators won't decide on their next step until they review the data that's due Aug. 22. Verizon also said it would explain the problems and plans to fix them by Aug. 27.

The commission could hold another hearing, fine the company or suggest ways to improve service, Edwards said.

What's next?

Verizon is expected to submit additional data by Aug. 22 to the Maryland Public Service Commission about complaints over the company's phone service. The PSC will then determine whether it will call for another hearing or take other action, such as imposing a fine or suggesting changes to how Verizon provides its service.

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