A California company that installs and repairs phone wires inside homes and small businesses complained to the Public Utilities Commission on Monday that local phone companies enjoy unfair advantages in what will become a wide-open market on New Year's Day.
The new market was created by a Federal Communications Commission ruling that ownership of so-called inside wiring will be transferred from phone companies to their customers starting Jan. 1. With ownership, however, will go responsibility for maintaining the wiring--hitherto the responsibility of phone companies.
Customers who dial 611 for maintenance now pay no specific fee for a repair to the wiring inside their homes or businesses. Costs are included in the companies' general overhead and are paid as part of the monthly service charge.
Both Pacific Bell and General Telephone of California intend to continue providing repair service next year--but only as an option and for a fee.
And that's what prompted Dennis Love, founder of the Extension Connection in San Anselmo, Calif., to complain to the PUC.
To Love, the local phone companies are unfairly using their billing envelopes--paid for by their customers--to offer their new monthly repair services. Moreover, use of the 611 number to obtain repairs puts companies like the Extension Connection at a disadvantage since their customers must use a conventional seven-digit phone number, he charged.
In his complaint, Love maintains that the phone companies should set up separate, profit-seeking subsidiaries if they wish to offer maintenance services after Jan. 1. Otherwise they will violate antitrust laws, his complaint claims.
What the PUC will do--or can do--with Love's complaint of unfair competition is anyone's guess at this point. What is clear is that on Jan. 1, the issue will pass beyond the state commission's authority.
In anticipation of that, both Pacific and General are contacting their customers to inform them of the required change in ownership and of the new monthly maintenance services they will offer:
- Pacific's monthly phone bills include a prepaid postcard that customers can use to sign up for the utility's "per-month wire repair plan." The plan will cost 50 cents a month for residential customers and $1 a line for businesses with no more than two telephone lines. Pacific customers who decline to pay the monthly fee can still obtain repairs, but the one-time charge is $65 for residential customers (and $65 for the first hour for business customers up to a maximum of $90).
- General Telephone customers will find two envelopes--one red and one green--enclosed with their next month's phone bill. If they use the green envelope to pay their bills, said spokesman Tom Leweck, they will sign up for the company's new "lines keeper" service, which costs 95 cents a month for residential customers and $1.95 for a single business line. Using the red envelope instead will decline the service. Customers who decline the service will be able to obtain repairs at a charge of $85 an hour, with a one-hour minimum.
The PUC estimates that inside wiring requires repair on an average of once every 12 years.