Inside Wiring Phone Fees--Fair or Foul?

It's kind of a strong-arm offer. For 95 cents a month, General Telephone Co. of California is selling its customers "Lines Keeper Service" to repair and maintain "any and all . . . wire inside your home." There's real pressure to decide: The original offer came in January's bill, which had to be paid in one of two envelopes, marked "YES" or "NO."

What's more, anyone who doesn't say yes by April--so far, 60% of the customers haven't--will be charged a one-time "inspection" fee of $85 to join later on. After all, says General spokesman Tom Leweck, "Today we know your inside wiring is fine, but six months from now, we don't know."

Thanks to deregulation, people all over the country have been asked, if not pressed, to make a decision on their inside wiring. Most have no idea what it is, whether it needs much fixing or whether the price is fair.

Few can even follow the flap over inside wiring. It all stems from a Federal Communications Commission decision that, as of last month, single-line telephone customers would have to pay special charges to have their inside wiring repaired or do it themselves.

Many Objections

All kinds of people objected: State regulators think inside wiring comes under state authority. Phone companies want more time to "unbundle," or break out the cost of that maintenance, without losing revenue. And consumer groups want basic service rates to go down now that ratepayers will no longer subsidize those who need such repairs.

Consumers don't all face the same situation. In Illinois, maintenance of inside wiring has been a separate charge (39 cents a month) for several years. New York won a postponement of the whole question until 1990. And in California, any money collected for such monthly "insurance" plans must be put aside until regulators determine whether everyone's basic rates should go down as a result.

Meantime, consumers are trying to figure out what inside wiring is . "It's the stuff in your house," says an FCC staffer, but not all of it.

Inside wiring is everything running from the outside "protector" box to, and including, the phone jacks. Everything else inside, from the jack to the customer's ear, has already been the customer's responsibility. Everything on the outside of a house up to and including the protector box is outside wiring, and the phone company will maintain and repair that without an extra charge. (The box, by the way, is company property. Those who want to install and maintain their own wiring may have to buy a special device to avoid touching it.)

In theory, consumers have had to choose among competing repair services. In actuality, they have decided whether to say Yes or No to their company's offer. Many simply decide by weighing the monthly service rate against the cost of a repair call. In California, for example, Pacific Bell's "per-month" plan costs 50 cents; its charge for uninsured repair visits is $65, regardless of time spent. So the cost of one visit equals almost 11 years of premiums.

Frequency of Repair

But the real problem, says one California householder, is "Who knows how often inside wiring goes bad?" A popular estimate is that the average line has a problem with inside wiring once every dozen years, "but it's hard to give an average lifetime for inside wiring," says Winston Bowen, Pacific's regional market manager, "because the cause of trouble is situational rather than wear-and-tear. An event causes the damage--water, rats, insects, a vacuum cleaner, children." Still, only 3.6% of all the troubles Pacific Bell handled in 1985 involved inside wiring, and only 8.4% of what General handled. The most common cause of trouble is phone equipment.

It's also hard to judge whether their price is fair, since neither company will show how it calculates the charges. Is one getting a fair deal from General when the monthly protection charge is almost double Pacific's, and the hourly charge ($85 for each hour spent) potentially a lot higher? Is Pacific really cheaper, when its servicemen charge a plan customer $35 for a service trip if the trouble turns out to be the phone equipment rather than the inside wiring--something customers aren't told before signing up, unless they ask. Pacific's operators do, however, "ask you to take the phone to your neighbor's house to check it before they come out," says a Pacific spokesman.

And what of the renter, whose inside wiring is partly in walls owned by someone else? Right now, any repairs, even 10 floors away, are billed to the subscriber who called, "because they're the ones we have the relationship with," says Bowen. "Unless," adds Leweck, "they worked out a previous arrangement with their landlord."

One alternative is to "figure out how to take care of the telephone wiring in your home on your own," says General. Public utilities, of course, could offer some help. With everything else stuffed in billing envelopes, why not some literature on inside wiring, particularly the jacks? That's the most frequent trouble spot, and, according to some homeowners, it's not particularly complicated.

Few Competitors

The other alternative is competitive repair companies, but so far, they are few and limited. Even the Extension Connection in Novato--perhaps the first independent of any size in California--can so far serve only Bay Area residents. Under its service package, the firm will fix inside wiring or diagnose another telephone problem "absolutely free," says President Dennis Love. It will also repair any other indoor telephone equipment--telephones, cords, modems, answering machines and other devices--for $30 a year.

But competition--the whole reason for deregulation--isn't really encouraged, given the enormous advantages still allowed the phone companies, says Love. "How do you compete against a 611 number," asks Love, "or against someone who can offer their service through a utility billing envelope?"

Nonsense, say the phone companies, there's plenty of competition. "I'd just look in the Yellow Pages under telephone supplies and equipment," says a Pacific spokesman, "and call and ask if they do repairs in the home."

It's all up to the consumer, who has already had to negotiate liability with his landlord, and locate and define the trouble as definitely inside wiring. If he ever has any trouble with inside wiring, that is.

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