Study Finds Fault With SBC and Verizon Service

Times Staff Writer

California's regulation of the telecommunications industry doesn't ensure good telephone service, a state report said Tuesday, raising the possibility of stiffer oversight of the major carriers, SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.

The report by a state Public Utilities Commission judge found that during the last 12 years, the two companies failed to provide timely installation and repairs, among other things.

The report also faulted the way the commission regulates the state's largest phone companies, saying that the regulatory system, in place since 1990, hasn't forced the companies to offer high-quality customer service.

Commissioner Loretta Lynch, who is heading a review of the system, said the report gave the PUC "a foundation for us to decide whether we should regulate more or regulate less."

The PUC is scheduled to consider the report on April 5.

The report cited SBC in particular for a number of shortcomings, including a high number of outages -- typically twice as many as Verizon had for residential customers -- and waits of as long as 50 hours for lost service to be restored.

Though the report gave Verizon comparatively higher marks, it was criticized for failings in installations and repairs for business customers.

Company executives said the report failed to take into account the great strides they have made in the last year or two. SBC's Lora Watts said complaints against the firm dropped 29% last year. As for Verizon, "even the commission's own customer survey results show that

Both SBC, which in the 1990s acquired Pacific Bell parent Pacific Telesis, and Verizon, which acquired GTE Corp., said service has improved dramatically despite the downturn in the telecommunications industry.

"Due to gradual downsizing over the years, Verizon's staffing levels are lower than at any time in the years studied, yet our performance levels are at an all-time high," McCallion said.

Lynch said she agrees with the companies on certain points. Some of the PUC's measures and standards for quality of service, for instance, are woefully out of date, she said.

The commission 12 years ago said that major local carriers had to answer service calls within 20 seconds. With automated customer-service systems now prevalent, calls are answered quickly -- but customers can still wait a long time on hold for a live service agent.

"SBC's own data show there is a five-minute wait, on average," Lynch said. "We need to re-look at that."

In the late 1980s, California was among a handful of states that changed the method for setting phone rates from one based on costs to one based on customer service performance.

At the time, regulators promised they would regularly review how companies were doing. But that never happened, Lynch noted.

In her report, Administrative Law Judge Sarah Thomas proposed that SBC and Verizon submit additional data to the commission.

SBC, for instance, must provide information on incomplete installations of multiple lines, and Verizon must provide information on what it offers business customers on service calls.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday March 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction Telephone service -- An article in Wednesday's Business section about the service records of SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. mistakenly said that Verizon acquired GTE Corp. Verizon was the name given to the company created in the merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic Corp. in 2000.
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