Storm-Related Phone Outages Sign Network Needs Fix, Groups Say

TURN tell senators that hundreds of thousands of Californians lost phone service in recent rain storms because phone companies like communications giants AT&T and Verizon aren’t given an incentive to maintain their network—or a penalty when they leave customers without service for as long 12 days.

Less than a month after having back surgery, 68-year-old Kay Polson would position herself at the end of her driveway, the only spot at her east Hemet home where she could get service on a borrowed cell phone. There, she hoped someone from Verizon would hear her.

Her home phone went silent Dec. 28 amid drenching rainstorms that hit Southern California and remained that way for 12 days, she said. Her dial-up Internet was useless, too.

For five days, she went to the same spot at the end of her driveway and waited on hold with Verizon, sometimes for four to five hours.

She reached one person who said it would be fixed Jan. 13. She kept calling, hoping to get it fixed faster.

Polson was among about 100,000 customers statewide who lost service during the storms, based on the number of "trouble tickets" telephone carriers received during that time.

AT&T had 70,000 complaints at the peak of the storm; Verizon had 32,000.

Both companies have said the storms from Dec. 17 to Jan. 4 that soaked underground cable canals were unprecedented. The state declared emergencies in numerous California counties, including Riverside and San Bernardino.

Consumers, reform groups and telecommunications firms that lease copper telephone lines from AT&T and Verizon say the storm may have proven what they’ve suspected for years, that the two major carriers have neglected their basic copper networks and, as a result, their land-line customers.

At the same time, both companies have expanded into more profitable cable, fiber and wireless services, the groups have noted.

"The copper network has taken second place," said Sarah DeYoung, president and executive director of CALTEL, the California Association of Competitive Telecommunications Companies. Her group is an advocate for companies such as TelePacific and others that lease "the last mile" of copper from AT&T and Verizon. During the storms, those customers were without telephone and Internet service for five to seven days.

The state Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications is holding a public hearing in Los Angeles this morning to talk to AT&T and Verizon representatives about the outages.

Normally, carriers are told they should fix 90 percent of reported telephone outages within 24 hours after they’re reported, according to the PUC’s service quality standards.

Long before the rainstorm soaked Southern California, though, both AT&T and Verizon were unable to fix 90 percent of outages within 24 hours in each of the first nine months of 2010, according to a report submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Emergency Issue

That goal is deemed moot, though, in the event of an emergency declaration.

In that case, the carriers have no commission-imposed deadline for restoring service; rather the incentive is to fix it as soon as possible or risk losing revenue, said Christopher Chow, a spokesman for the commission.

Sen. Alex Padilla, chairman of the committee, said the discussion will focus on the lengthy time it took to restore service and whether regulations need to be revisited or updated.

In Hemet, it wasn’t until Polson’s daughter called Verizon from work and spent just under an hour on hold that Polson got a promise her phone would be fixed.

"We have nothing wireless in this house," she said. Her husband, Marshall, 76, is hard of hearing and isn’t a fan of cell phones. Their land line is their lifeline in case of a medical emergency, she said.

"Each day that I was trying unsuccessfully to recontact them, my anxiety over that possibility grew," she said.

When the repairman arrived to fix her phone line, she said, he didn’t say what was wrong with their line but mentioned that everything is old and needs to be replaced.

Polson said she’s thinking of switching to Verizon’s fiber optic service.

In the first half of last year, 71.3 percent of U.S. households still had traditional wired phone service, according to a survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than one out of every four households had wireless service only.

‘Being Left Behind’

Christine Mailloux, attorney for The Utility Reform Network, said her organization is supportive of new technologies such as fiber and cable and wireless, but there are implications to abandoning old technology, including what customers will be able to rely on during an emergency.

"We are very concerned that your basic land-line voice service customer is being left behind," she said.

AT&T is responsible for the majority of wired networks in California, with Verizon second and independent companies sprinkled largely throughout Central and Northern California. When it comes to fixing the network, it’s the carrier’s responsibility.

For years, the state had guaranteed carriers a rate of return, and signed off on rate increases, based on the investments the companies made to improve the networks they owned.

Since the telecommunications industry has been slowly deregulated, the commission has stopped guaranteeing that rate of return and no longer oversees rate increases. A carrier’s incentive to maintain a network is now competition with other carriers.

AT&T and Verizon officials have said their companies have made hefty investments in wired and wireless networks throughout the state. In the past six months, AT&T has invested $1.1 billion in its wired and wireless network, said spokeswoman Deborah Rapoport.

But Regina Costa, telecom research director for The Utility Reform Network, said there’s no evidence the carriers are reinvesting in their networks, because the Public Utilities Commission hasn’t tracked it.

Between October and January, the California Public Utilities Commission received 218 complaints from customers that their Verizon telephone was out of service. Another 392 complaints came from customers of AT&T. That was about 10 times the average.

‘Trouble Tickets’

Verizon had 32,000 pending "trouble tickets" statewide at the height of the storm from customers reporting service outages, 12 times the normal amount the company has during that time of year, said spokesman Les Kumagai.

He said the company increased its work force by 73 percent, although he wouldn’t say how many workers Verizon started with, and the employees worked 10-hour days, six days a week instead of a typical 40-hour, five-day workweek. That effort ended Jan. 29 when the remaining trouble ticket count fell below the usual average of about 2,667 service complaints.

He said the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars maintaining the wired network it uses throughout California and that the company hasn’t ignored it to focus on its fiber-optic FIOS service.

Among the company’s Inland customers who questioned Verizon’s attention to its traditional wired network during the last storms was Paula Scheidemantle, 86, of Calimesa.

She said she relied on her largely unreliable cell phone for two weeks while her home phone was out of service. She’s had Verizon for 12 years. Despite wishing the company would "go broke" because of the unsatisfactory service she’s received, she doesn’t think she can switch.

"Who else am I going to get? There’s no other phone company out here," she said.