Bell’s Blues

[Important Note: The following column appeared under this same title in the Burlington Free Press in March of 1997.]

“Hang on. I dropped the phone.”

Like the toilet, the telephone is the household appliance that must perform faithfully every time you need to make a call.

Once upon a time the telephone came one style (Durable Dial), one color (Bell Black). One monopoly served everyone. Local calls were unlimited, operators assisted, phone bills were reasonable, and the phones stood up to the occasional gambol on the kitchen floor.

Then, with a swipe of the judicial pen, “Ma Bell” split into AT&T and all the regional Baby Bells like New England Bell. Phone bills soared. We all had to buy cheap phones that bounce poorly. Trust in the phone company went down the toilet.

Heard at a Vermont IGA, “Their minutes last 53 seconds.”


[Historical Note: New England Bell spawned NYNEX which in turn merged with Bell Atlantic and spawned Verizon which sold out to Fairpoint which went bankrupt. See how that works?]


Thanks to the Vermont Telecommunications Agreement, NYNEX gave us measured service. In phone company parlance, measured service counts each instant of local phone use. Then they bill us. NYNEX sold measured service to Vermonters by saying it controls our local telephone costs.

Sure. The old way, we paid $19.63 every month.

Measured service means we can’t “pay any more that $26.67.” If you manage not to use their minimum daily allowance, you’ll pay only $19.52.

Here’s the scoop. NYNEX “gives” us a $6.95 worth of message units each month. Every message unit amounts to one minute on the phone. More or less. When you use more message units, NYNEX bills you. NYNEX charges you for each whole minute’s worth if you use even a single second. Even if you get a wrong number. If I use less than my allotment, does NYNEX give me a discount? No. They just make more profit.

Who counts those minutes? The electric company puts their meters where we can see them. When I pump gasoline into my car, the readout tells me how much in thousandths of gallons. I’ve always wondered why I need that kind of precision.

I installed a phone timer to record every outgoing call; the log shows whether the call is peak or off-peak. The local usage charge on my bill has never come within 10% of the total shown in the log. Since NYNEX apparently cannot count, I guess I do need the gas pump kind of precision in my phone bill. Wasn’t NYNEX forced to return a $15 million excess profit?

Maybe that’s why they needed an 8.2% rate increase [then].

Measured service is such a delicious oxymoron. It positions its purveyors perfectly in a world where decamping lovers practice “cruel kindness,” a computer crash can cause a “partial shutdown” in your life, and “call answering” leads to a heartfelt conversation with a computer voice.

Almost everyone has a phone story. Your state Public Service Board wants to hear yours. Speak up at public hearings; write to them in your state capitol. If one or two of us sing loud and long, it might sound like a song from Woodstock. If a hundred of us serenade them, they’ll think it’s a movement. And if they get letters by the mailbag, who knows, NYNEX might get some competition. With more than one dial tone provider looking for your business, Vermonters might get nicer phone bills.

There is another way. A NYNEX representative told me she has had measured service for a few years, and it doesn’t cost her any extra.

“How so?” I asked.

“I don’t make any calls.”

Breaking News:
Verizon Wireless will pay about $90 million to 15 million cellphone customers who were wrongly charged in one of the largest-ever refunds by a telecommunications company.