The Phone Companies

The Paranoids May Actually Be Right

Francis Vale

I took the wrong entrance ramp onto the Information Highway. Worse, I couldn't seem to get off. My hair raising trip started the minute I switched over from AT&T to Cable and Wireless, the latter promising a long distance flat rate of 15 cents a minute, and special discount deals to certain European countries. Then the first C&W bill arrived. Huh? The rate was instead close to 25 cents! Moreover, I was also visited with a special, never mentioned, "non-recurring" charge of $25. In fact, this obscurely written overcharge was subsidizing the "competitive" overseas rate that C&W successfully bid against MCI. (Trust + TELCO = a new oxymoron?)

This billing debacle got even better, as an AT&T bill then showed up for the same calling period. I was being double billed! And gee whiz, wouldn't you just know it. AT&T seems to have developed a pesky computer clock error, as their call duration times were nowhere near close to C&W's. For example, AT&T's clock "rounded off" a one minute call into one lasting nine minutes. Moreover, while the dates and telephone numbers were the same for both company's bills, the time of day calls were all different, by as much as twenty minutes! What a great way to fudge calling time discount rates-- just change the billing clock.

So I called NYNEX, my favorite ersatz ISDN provider ("No one sends faster bits -- but you can't have 'em!") I told them to switch me over to Sprint while I sorted things out. NYNEX also kindly offered to put an "anti-slam" feature on our lines so predatory LD carriers couldn't sneak one past us. Four weeks or so then went by, when a friendly NYNEX Rep called. He said I could have bookkeeping convenience, plus savings, just by combining my long distance charges together with local calls on the same NYNEX bill. The sucker 'em in alarm bells immediately went off: "Does this mean our LD carrier will also be changed?" I asked. No response from our telemarketer friend, but who was obviously thrown off guard by the question. Instead, he offers the same canned sales pitch. So we try asking the question again. Ah ha! "Well, we are using a generic LD carrier, Long Distance Services." First NYNEX puts an anti-slam order on my phone lines, then it tries to slam me! And "Long Distance Services?" This innocuous looking legend appears on your next bill, and you think you still have MCI, or whatever, when in fact, you've just been slammed and whammed.

What's probably scarier, the Information Highway is about to become even more congested with rapacious resellers of bandwidth. For example, the cable companies, says Mr. David Fellows, Sr. VP. of Continental Cablevision (also of New England), wants to "put ourselves out of the video business and into the broadband data business." But wouldn't you know it? That pesky Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) wants to muck up those nice Cable Guys' plans by imposing rational standards. It also seems the cable companies, who cut their technical teeth on repackaging 30 year old I Love Lucy reruns, just can't get the hang of all that UNIX/Internet stuff those IETF guys keep jabbering about. Moreover, the cable people bow to the almighty Time to Market Gods: use it or lose it -- no matter what's in it.

But the plastic pencil pocket protector crowd over at the IETF has these strange notions about making sure that everything interoperates before standards are finalized. Naturally, we also have an alphabet soup of standards being thrown willy nilly into the CATV/Internet Veg-o-matic, including, but surely not limited to: The IETF's IP over CATV; the Davic spec for cable TV modems; SCTE for security; the IEEE's PHY-MAC; and Cable Labs' own ideas for building TV modems. Hey, don't worry. The cable companies' incessant telemarketers will sort it all out for you when they call to bug you about subscribing to the Java-enabled Gilligan's Island.

Meanwhile, perched high up in the trees overhanging the Information Highway are flocks of TELCO marketing vultures, newly freed from their regional cages by your U.S. Congress. They are no less eager to slam-bam and overbill the broadband dialtone going into your Information Highway TV set than the cable companies. And, of course, we have Mr. Bill, who wants to install his Simply Interactive PC software on your TV set-top box to run the whole IH menagerie. Simple MS software? From the "if-it's-out-there-then-it's-in-our-operating-system" company? MS makes the Baroque look like the Bauhuas when it comes to software design simplicity.

So here we have the newly mega-merged TELCO's, the carnivorous cable companies, the Internet-IPO frenzied start-ups, and the We-Want-It-All-Microsoft, collectively careening down the Great Information Highway; and all putting their marketing cross hairs on your wallet. Can you imagine the financial effects of this new market-crazed onslaught? You can't even get the straight facts on how much a simple phone call costs you. A-i-e-e-e! Where's the next exit ramp?

The Bottom Line

Home Users: 10 to 1, you are now wildly overpaying the phone company. And there is not much you can do about it. Don't go complaining to the Feds about it, either. After all, they just handed out a bunch more new licenses to kill to your toothsome TELCOs.

Business Users: You thought the phone companies were gouging your company? Just wait until Gates, the TELCOs, the RBOC, and the Cable Gang get finished with you. If you are the company's CIO, maybe it's time for a career path switch before it's too late. How about a McDonalds franchise? At least you can keep track of how many fries are in the bag.

Power Users: Do it right, and every month you get to have a new phone company, plus all those freebies and discounts. Your telephone bills will become so incomprehensible, even your ex-spouse's lawyer will have no idea what you did with the money.

Copyright 1996, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

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