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At the mercy of The Inscrutable Verizon and telecom itself
From: David Farber <dave () farber net>
Date: Sat, 13 Sep 2008 05:43:01 -0400

Begin forwarded message:

From: "Bob Frankston" <Bob19-0501 () bobf frankston com>
Date: September 13, 2008 12:28:14 AM EDT
To: <dave () farber net>, "'Doc Searls'" <doc () searls com>, "'Open Infrastructure Alliance'" <oia () lists bway net>
Subject: At the mercy of The Inscrutable Verizon and telecom itself

I just got off the phone after two hours speaking to Verizon Wireless and I did get about $1000 in credits but I can’t be sure.

The specifics of the dispute aren’t that special – in February I tried to cancel two lines I wasn’t using but they put into “billable suspend” instead and in June I discovered one of my sons happened to run over the account “minutes” and the other had $500 in data charges on what should’ve been an unlimited line …

On this last call I asked if I could get a “written” (email or whatever) summary of what issues they are resolving and the amounts involved etc. The answer was a flat no – the only information they were able to provide was orally over the phone and in the runes on their next billing statements which are formatted for printing and not analysis and without full explanation for charges and credits. (As an aside, some transactions are completely separate as when buying a phone using a credit card).

The problem was exacerbated because I had (naively) signed up for their “One-Bill®” service and it could take two months or more for information to meander from Verizon Wireless to one bill which, I was told today, is operated by Verizon Wireless. It doesn’t help that standard Verizon support is a 9-6 operation though VZW, the cash cow, does have longer hours. At this point the One Bill statement shows charges from VZW but apparently there is no mechanism, once I’ve severed the connection, for those credits ever to appear on the One- Bill® statement and no mechanism for dealing with that issue!! What a fine mess!

At two hours I finally gave up and let them do whatever with the last few dollars because I was told that their records showed that I had asked for suspend despite the many errors that were a consequences of that first error! In fact, I was also told that the used the sheer number of errors as “proof” that I was asking for too much!

Disputes with customer support aren’t that unusual but I consider telecom a special case because it’s about our very ability to communicate – something that should be a right not luxury. My choices are slim – RCN immediately sold me to a harassment house to collect a bill in dispute and a few months later after much grief sent me the refund after I’d given up and paid them off! And Comcast with its arbitrary caps and the lack of transparency …

Part of the problem is the industry itself. Why do I need to be constantly vigilant in case an account over its “minutes” or other tripwire? Why do I have to search the bills for charges I don’t even know exist or might’ve forgotten. The $500 data charge was due to Verizon’s confusion in move a the “data plan” plan to the wrong “phone number” – one that I’d tried to disconnect! What if I’m not checking in constantly and using auto-payment? Or what if I don’t notice the extra minutes until after the end of the billing period I could, and have been hit for hundreds of dollars in charges because I lost the bet against the house. It doesn’t help that the bill can be a 16 page PDF file.

These problems are endemic in the current model of telephony. How could I protect a relative with bipolar disorder who dialed operator- assisted international calls one month and ran up $1000 in charges for what would have cost a few dollars had she been on the right international plan and dialed direct or cost nothing over VoIP?. How do people even know about all these plans?

Since the services and prices have only a tenuous basis in reality they are by nature perverse. And there are traps everywhere. You change a plan and discover that a byproduct is that you’ve re-upped for another two years! Your (US) domestic flight makes an emergency landing in Toronto (as one of mine did) and suddenly you’re paying international rates – and worse if you’re phone happened to be running an application that fetched map data in the background!

What makes this especially painful is that if we didn’t have telecom companies in the middle there wouldn’t be any reason to limit the connection to a single modality. You could have a shared status window and collaborate on items under discussion thus reducing the errors and at last clarifying the disputes. Verizon does have chat support but it doesn’t have voice (or data). Putting the disparate features together is hard though I argue doing them together is far easier and more straightforward.

With the control of the call and connection in user space you would be able to do your own spam and filter marketing calls (AKA spam) and have triggers for out of range events. I would also expect Caller-ID to be subsumed by messaging. But these improvements are another topic in their own right.

Of course Verizon is trying to add features such as the ability to let me look at my call log online but, well, it’s wanting. It seems to deal with just one of my lines but I did look forward to the ability to add entries to may address book in hopes that it would use it assist in creating the illusion of Caller-ID by name but no luck – the calls are still marked unknown. We see the same problems with their EPG foibles for FiOS TV – did anyone check the placements to avoid chopping off the list of the actors in the movie? As a programmer I actually find some of the race conditions in their STB software amusing but that’s small consolation. At least it doesn’t crash as often as Comcast.

Back to the conversation with support. After I had switched from one support person to another (apparently terminating a line on the account is done by a different department) the first person called me back on another line (with a caller ID showing the number but not “Verizon” even though it was my Verizon line) but I couldn’t merge the calls or do much better than holding a phone to each ear. One line was my VoIP line in my third floor office and the other my VZ line with the base station on the first floor. I have separate phones because cordless phones have regressed so I have to get the call in a single hop from the base station and even at 5.8Mhz the results are mixed at best. If I had an IP phone I could have done my own relaying but that market is still in the future (though with Asterisk I may be able to DIY it had I the time for one more project).

The experience is also a reminder of a flaw in the idea of number portability. One reason I keep the VoIP line is that I can have the call ring on multiple lines. The VZW number I tried to remove is two generations back – I “switched” to T-Mobile and now have a ATT cell- phone. I put switched in quotes because I overlap the services and sometimes switch between them. Portability doesn’t have that concept. The number is associated with a single device as if I am the device. Again, were it not for phone companies I would be able to process the calls myself and separate the number from the end-point as Skype does. Though I can give out the VoIP number for finding me SMS is still tied to the cellular number and doesn’t support forwarding or any enhancement.

One final comment on telephony – I’m going to be traveling to China next month and the Amazon Kindle is a nice way to carry books to read en route. But I better load it up now for once I’m beyond the reach of the Sprint cellular network I’m out of touch. Too bad – it would’ve been nice for my newspaper subscription to work while traveling. And these problems are world wide – can I even buy an “unlimited” data plan in China?

As I wrote recently I’m glad to see Congressman Kohl starting to ask questions about SMS charges. What is disappointing is that the problem is so much more than overbilling – the problem is in the damage done by limiting ourselves to telephony as envisioned in the 19th century and then guzzied up with digital gewgaws and buried beneath a myriad of billable services.

What frustrates me is that these problems feed upon each other within the Regulatorium yet if you step outside the arbitrary distinctions that prevent solutions simply vanish. So, once again, I find myself asking why we seem so intent to inflict these problems upon ourselves?

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