Answering the call

The Baltimore Sun

Cell phones are ubiquitous these days. But there are plenty of Marylanders who still rely on a traditional telephone in their home. And they shouldn't be neglected or relegated to the bottom of the heap when service problems arise.

It seems Verizon Maryland Inc. has been lax in servicing some of its residential customers, and the fact that its officials were unable to account for the problems this week suggests that state regulators have reason to stay on top of them.

At a hearing called by the state Public Service Commission, the telephone company admitted that it missed more than 20 percent of its service appointments. In Maryland, that is a violation of state regulations. At least 80 percent of telephone service calls must be answered on time under those rules. The PSC convened the hearing after receiving 300 complaints about Verizon service so far this year, an increase of 50 percent over last year at this time.

Astonishingly, Verizon executives couldn't answer some basic questions - such as how long it takes to fix a telephone problem. According to the commission, the company is the largest provider of residential telephone service. Its near-monopoly on land lines is at the heart of the problem; customers with service complaints are basically stuck. Cell phones aren't for everybody, which leaves consumers with only one option.

Three hundred complaints may seem insignificant for a company that has 3 million lines in Maryland. But the PSC didn't think so, and it's gratifying to see the commission pursue this issue. Some consumers waited days, even weeks, to get their problems resolved, which is absolutely unacceptable. Commissioner Steven B. Larsen's point that lack of phone service could have health and safety implications underscores the fact that being without a phone isn't only an inconvenience.

Verizon was caught off-guard by the PSC's show-cause order of last week; it had less than the usual time allotted to respond. It has been given two weeks to provide a response to the commission's concerns. Its spokesmen argue that a commission standard that repairs be made within eight to 24 hours has never been the norm and is outdated. The time it takes to repair a problem depends on the service required, they note.

In promoting itself, Verizon boasts: "When you think of service quality, think of Verizon." That quality should apply equally to residential and wireless customers.

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