The cost of deregulation

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Big utilities such as Verizon, PECO no longer answer government or customers

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

Typically, this column runs on Saturday. Typically, it is also written on my MacPro, an eight-core aircraft carrier of a computer on Friday afternoon. That it is being written on a Monday morning, on my iPad and being uploaded via cellular Internet connection tells you things are not sweetness and light at Casa McGann, at least in terms of technology.

Now before you worry that my ever-patient wife tossed me out — it’s not the case. What we probably both need a separation from is Verizon, were not the alternatives equally as bad.

We’ve been without phone/Internet and video service since Friday afternoon, which with a pair of 11-year-olds in the house freshly back from camp and two weeks of technology deprivation and my occupation as Web news guy, makes things a bit tricky.

There’s been something slightly less than 300 calls to Verizon’s customer support line — various stories about when, and if, someone would come and fix it. Techs have come and gone and it appears some very expensive piece of gear somewhere off my property has been attacked by ants (so much for fiber optical cables being impervious to weather and wildlife).

We were one of the pioneers in the area in terms of getting Verizon’s FIOS fiber service. As a former tech writer, I knew this was the future and wanted to embrace it over the 1970s tech still basically being used by Comcast in our area.

To say it’s been a bumpy ride is something of an understatement. The original gear installed here worked great…but then Verizon insisted on upgrading it. That’s when everything went to pieces.

Again, though, I worked in tech writing for a long time and I know things go off the rails — half of the products I reviewed didn’t work as advertised or were so difficult to set up the average person would want to toss them into traffic after a few minutes of trying to configure them.

So, when my FIOS went south, I got used to calling, spending an hour running around my house plugging and unplugging cables (despite the fact that I’d already done all of these time-consuming basic tests long before calling for help) before convincing Verizon to send a warm body to my home. The tech would come, rip the company for treating its unionized (Communication Workers of America) techs so poorly and then rip whatever poor sod came to work on the system previously for doing a lousy job.

Things would improve marginally, but it was never right (from my years of writing about tech, I have various certifications for Home Theater setup, including having spent time at Skywalker Ranch to get THX certified as a theater designer — so I have a sense of how things are supposed to work). I knew this and communicated it to various techs, but it did little but get me a shrug. They could have come out sooner, but a Verizon supervisor declined to approve the overtime expense.

Now, of course, it’s all dead. In fact, as I write this, Verizon texted us to inform us the work was done. Of course, nothing works, so whatever they tried failed miserably — again — and they didn’t bother to stop by and make sure it was working.

And no, although it’s likely I’m moving my $300-a-month tech addition to Comcast, I doubt they’re any better.

But it’s not like there’s anyone to complain to, right? Sure, Verizon is technically governed by a local township franchise, so I suppose I could complain to my local elected officials. But they have virtually no leverage and need the franchise money that comes in every year, so it’s not like they’d consider pulling the plug on FIOS in Pocopson (and a lot of people are perfectly happy with the service — so that would be unfair to them as well).

And it’s not like I can call my local state representative or state senator and ask for help. Both get lots of campaign cash from Verizon and nothing but grief from me, so you know on which side of this argument they’re going to fall.

I know I’m far from alone. Many of you have gone through similar experiences with Verizon, Comcast or PECO, and frankly, thanks to deregulation, these companies can pretty much do whatever they want to you and you pretty much have to put up with it. I’m guessing that if you miss a payment (I don’t know from personal experience), they’re a lot quicker to respond.

We need to rethink this. As telecom resources (phone/Internet) become nearly as crucial a backbone as our road system to commerce and education, it is time for these companies to come under tighter scrutiny, and dare I say it, regulation. When repairs to power systems now take weeks after storms instead of hours, as was the case a couple of decades back, we need to be asking why.

All of these companies have cut back technical staff, training and maintenance to save money and maximize profit — at our expense.

With these companies literally having an unlimited ability to put money in political campaigns, it seems unlikely that we, the average people, have much of a shot of getting the attention of our elected officials on this front.

So, maybe that makes me a voice in the wilderness, but I suspect as we travel further down this road, more and more of you will wonder whether these were good choices and whether it’s too late to double back.

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