Tales From the Sausage Factory: Telephone Competition in the U.S.

I’m taking the opportunity to post a little essay I wrote when I moved last March. It illustrates the problems of implementing domestic phone competition in the U.S. I have no reason to believe that anyone in either company (Verizon or Cavalier Telephone) were trying to screw us or were playing fast and lose with the rules. Each one was genuinely trying to do its job, and all the people I talked with were uniformly polite, friendly, and well intentioned. I love well intentioned people, they provide me with such great paving stones that the handcart I’m in rides smooth to the end. . .


It has taken nearly three weeks since I moved, but I finally have a landline.

This may seem odd to those living in the U.S. However, it is the peculiar result of the system of competition developed in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The ’96 Act requires the local phone company (a.k.a. the “incumbent local exchange company” or ILEC) to open their networks to competing local exchange carriers (or CLECs). In this way, we consumers are supposed to see competition, lower prices, better services, an end to world hunger, etc.

The problem is that the ILEC still owns the network, and must provide service to the CLEC for the CLEC to reach the customer. Although ILECs are paid by CLECs for this, the ILECs would much rather keep the residential customer than sell wholesale service to the CLEC at a regulated rate. (ILECs and CLECs both claim the regulated rate is a rip off, btw, but guess what, neither agrees which way).

As you might imagine, CLECs routinely have hook-up problems and no shows, which they blame on the ILECs. CLECs complain quite bitterly to anyone who will listen (which automatically excludes the Wireline Competition Bureau at the FCC and Chairman Powell) that ILECs only pretend to comply with the openness requirements of the ‘96 Act and are in fact preventing the CLECs from getting customers, marketing to the CLEC’s customers when the CLEC customers call to complain, and promising free phone sex to CLEC customers who will switch back to the ILEC.

Occasionally, CLECs are confronted with evidence of their own screw ups or taken to task for their wasteful spending back when investment money fell from trees. CLECs reply that they are new and learning the ropes under pressure from hostile ILECs – who, in league with the forces of darkness and out of shear malice, are holding back the next tech revolution and thus costing America millions of jobs.

ILECs, for their part, resent these accusations. ILECs proclaim loudly to anyone who will listen that they bow to none in their compliance with the law and respect for competition. Problems emerge because CLECs are amateur start-ups run by whiners trying to make money from regulatory arbitrage, with a side business in the cocaine trade.

Occasionally ILECS are confronted with evidence of blatant anticompetitive actions by their service teams or sales people. In such cases the ILECs are shocked, SHOCKED I tell you, and reply that in an organization as big as an ILEC it is no surprise that a few bad apples simply don’t get the message.

Against this background, you have Harold & Becky & Aaron Feld & Quantum, the family cat. Harold, telecom lawyer in the public interest, decides that, ya know, he should really support competition and all that good stuff and use a CLEC. Becky agrees. Aaron gets no vote. Quantum is concerned about reliability issues (cats are fairly conservative when you get down to it) but is swayed by the lower prices, which will free up more resources for important things like gourmet cat food.

So we switch to Cavalier Telephone (CavTel). For over a year, Cavalier provides great service with tons of nifty features at prices lower than Verizon and offers service combos not available from Verizon. We are quite happy. Harold feels smug about doing his share to promote competition. Becky can sleep on weekends because “teleblock” screens out 99.99% of telemarketing calls and wrong numbers. Aaron doesn’t care. Quantum eats gourmet cat food — which she barfs on the rug.

Then, a dramatic change occurs. We decide to move five miles down Colesville Rd to downtown Silver Spring, thus getting closer to the Metro and intending to claim the numerous tax-breaks offered for entertainment and telecommunications relocations to the region.

Now the fun begins. We inform Cavalier on March 14 that we will move on March 26. Cavalier says it can schedule a phone hook up for March 28.

Why the delay? Because before Cavalier can service us, a Verizon technician must come out to our house and do something. For those technically inclined: Verizon has to modify a circuit switch in the NID box so that the central office will use the Cavalier cradle. For those whose eyes glazed over at the words “technically inclined,” a Verizon tech needs to flip a switch in a box attached to our house. For those for whom even that description is too complicated (hi Mom!), a Verizon tech has to come out and do the phone switch dance.

The key point, however, is that it must be a VERIZON tech. Cavalier, the company we have a contract with, can’t come out and do it themselves because the NID box belongs to Verizon, despite the fact that it is physically attached to our house. If that sounds absurd, I remind you that there was a time when your telephone, which you kept INSIDE your house, belonged to the telephone company, and using a different phone was punishable by death. So the fact that the ILEC still owns the box on the side of the house and that no one else, even the phone company that I actually USE (or perhaps, especially the phone company that I actually use) can touch it should not seem so odd (aggravating, but not odd).

But o.k., we can live for two days without a landline. We have cell phones. Quantum is less than pleased, pointing out that such a cumbersome system is rife with possibilities for errors. Quantum, however, has been less than pleased with the whole relocation and has resorted to a protest strategy known as “make-my-tail-as-puffy-as-a-bottle-brush-and-hiss-at-everything” so we tend to disregard her objections.

We move March 26-27. This is a story in itself involving, among other things, the discovery of (I am not making this up) what is apparently a fresh water spring in our former basement.

March 28 comes.

Becky waits, with growing impatience, all day for the Verizon tech. She makes special arrangements to have Aaron picked up at pre-kindergarten. She spends endless amounts of time on the phone with Cavalier. Eventually, it becomes clear that the Verizon tech is not coming.

Now the fun REALLY begins. Because the tech works for Verizon, Cavalier says it has no control. They say they cannot even contact the tech in the field to find out what is going on. Verizon, of course, won’t talk to us because we are a Cavalier customer (shame on us!) and therefore we have no relationship with Verizon. At this point, Becky is almost as puffy-tailed as Quantum and only slightly less hissy.

Unfortunately, the Verizon tech continues to fail to show up everyday for the next week. And with no explanation. The Cavalier people are apologetic but, they say, helpless. Meanwhile, we are racking up several hundred gazillion minutes of overcharges on our cell phones on hold while Cavalier bounces us from department to department as tearful customer service representatives seek to end their own pain, since they can’t do anything about ours, by getting us off their desks. While we wait, Cavalier thoughtfully reminds us that, if we had Internet access, we could contact them online.

But of course, we have no home Internet connection. We signed up for Cavalier DSL, but Cavalier can’t give us DSL service until we have a phone, and, without a dial tone, we can’t use regular dial up Internet either. This causes us to realize just how dependent we are on the Internet. We delay a shoping trip for desperately needed furniture because, get this, we cannot find furniture outlets and window shop online first. While more primitive (and therefore more self-reliant) people might actually GO TO AN ACTUAL STORE we decline to follow this strategy because, after all, the store might not have stuff and we’re not sure where it is.

Worse, the lack of phone means we lose Tivo service. Tivo requires a phone link back to the Tivo Central mother ship so it can report our viewing preferences to Tivo Central’s market research types and, possibly, John Ashcroft. If Tivo cannot track our watching habits and report back to the mothership (so it can serve us better!) it won’t function.

Aaron, who has been relatively patient up to now, freaks out. Aaron has had a Tivo since before he was three. He simply does not grok the concept of “live TV”. He does not understand why we can’t pause the TV when he goes to the bathroom, or rewind the TV from the beginning if we join a show in the middle. Nor does he understand why he can’t watch the show again later. At this point, Aaron’s tail is considerably puffier than Becky’s or Quantum’s (who has adopted a new relocation protest strategy of “jump out the door and make them hunt me down”). Worse, no amount of begging, crying, tantrums, hunger strikes, etc. can make mommy or daddy fix the problem. His last refuge, DVDs and tapes, are still packed away. (Aaron begins looking up numbers for social services to report what he is sure is child abuse but, sadly, we don’t have a phone and he doesn’t have a cell yet).

Finally, Quantum’s smugness at predicting we’d have problems is getting very annoying. Nothing worse than a smug cat.

Undaunted, I press my case on the Verizon side. Over time, I speak to two Verizon vice presidents and get a phone call from the President of Verizon Maryland. They assure me that the fault lies with the evil CLEC, which misfiled the order, gave them the wrong address, wrong time zone, and possibly, used magic to shift their tech to another dimension. However, they promise that, assuming Cavalier does not join forces with Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden (which, Verizon tells me, CLECs have been known to do), they will have a tech out on April 7. Cavalier assures me that they will activate service as soon as Verizon flips the switch, unless Verizon calls upon its allies in North Korea or deploys its weapons of mass destruction.

On April 7, Verizon reports that they completed the service and have a dial tone. All that remains is for Cavalier to flip the switch. I ask the Cavalier customer rep if we need to stay home for the tech. Cavalier replies that if Verizon did not need someone to let them in, Cavalier doesn’t.

On Tuesday, April 8, we have no dial tone. We do, however, have a note stating that Cavalier came, couldn’t get into the house, and therefore did not complete the service. Becky, now nearly hysterical and screaming that she will personally hunt down the members of the House Commerce Committee that conceived this scheme and make THEM wait for a repair man, works her way up the Cavalier management chain to find out how Verizon got a dial tone and Cavalier couldn’t. Cavalier tells her that Verizon probably broke into our house, and we should check the family silver. Cavalier promises to be out tomorrow (April 9).

On April 9, I wait grimly by the door, determined that if a Cavalier tech comes, I will be ready. Of course, this forecloses anything like work or even going to the bathroom, lest I miss the approach of the Cavalier tech. Finally, in the late afternoon, the Cavalier tech arrives. He comes down to the basement, checks my phone drop and announces, much to the surprise of everyone, that despite what Verizon reported there is, in fact, no dial tone on the line.

“But what about Verizon reporting a dial tone?” I ask. The Cavalier guy replies that Verizon must have a dial tone at the Central Office, but not at the location. (For non-phone people, a Central Office or “CO” in telephone speak is a place with a lot of switches and phone stuff that gets you from your neighborhood line to the main phone network. No one actually works there, although how this differentiates it from an actual phone office is beyond me.) Alternatively, since ILECs are known to be crack-smoking evil-doers, the Verizon tech lied in an attempt to foil competition. One or the other. The Cavalier tech goes on to explain that the problem lies between the phone box in my house and the central office. i.e, on the actual phone line. Since the phone line belongs to Verizon, Cavalier can’t do anything. He calls in the problem to Verizon and leaves. I weep, openly and unashamedly. Quantum sees this and, choosing a bad time to remind me that she predicted this, learns once again that cats are not aerodynamic.

On April 10, I wake at 2 a.m. so I can sneak off to work without either phone company knowing, since my growing paranoia convinces me that this is a conspiracy between Verizon and Cavalier who, for some reason, never want me to leave my home again. I return home by 7 a.m. so I can begin an exciting day waiting for the Verizon tech.

The Verizon tech arrives at 8:30 a.m. and confirms that, yep, there is no dial tone on the line. He diligently works the problem down the line to the central office. About Noon, he trundles back to tell me that the problem is with Cavalier equipment in the CO. Since it is Cavalier equipment, he can’t fix it. [At this point, my scream of frustration quite literally raises the roof, splits stone, frightens small children, and sterilizes animals within a hundred foot radius] But the good news, he says, is that once Cavalier fixes the problem, I should have a dial tone. The Verizon tech calls in the problem to Cavalier and leaves. I prepare to offer up Quantum as a sacrifice to the phone gods, whom I have obviously offended by moving.

April 11. Cavalier does not manage to get a tech out to the central office, but, if I wait, their repair tech, a fellow named Mr. Godot, will surely come tomorrow.

April 12-13. Weekend. No techs. Brood over fact that holiday of Passover is coming and wondering is I can get ten plagues to smite phone companies.

April 14. Cavalier manages to fix the problem in the Central Office. We have dial tone. I marvel that IT TOOK LESS TIME FOR THE U.S. ARMY TO LIBERATE IRAQ than it took for me to transfer my residential phone line using a CLEC.

Hopefully, the bugs in the 1996 Act will be worked out and competition will run rampant. Until then, I will continue to hope for Internet access and VOIP over powerlines. Odds are good it will be deployed more quickly.

Stay tuned

One Comment

  1. Hey how come we do not have that company in new york. Sounds better than verizon anyday.

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