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PacBell Service Has Declined, Survey Says


The quality of service at California's largest phone company has deteriorated since Pacific Bell was acquired by Texas-based SBC Communications Inc. in 1996, a state consumer advocacy group said Tuesday.

By comparison, the quality of service at the former GTE Corp., which was acquired by Bell Atlantic in 2000 and renamed Verizon Communications, has improved over the last decade, according to the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent arm of the California Public Utilities Commission.

The group based its findings on written surveys sent last year to more than 11,000 business and residential customers of California's two largest phone companies.

The study gauged subscriber opinions in 36 key service areas, from installation and repair to billing, call quality and dealings with phone company employees.

Compared with a similar 1995 survey, customers of what is now SBC PacBell gave the company lower grades in 19 of the 36 service areas, higher grades in four categories and roughly similar grades in 13 other areas.

Verizon customers were more divided on service quality questions, but fewer respondents gave the company the lowest grades in 33 of the 36 categories, compared with a similar study in 1991.

SBC officials disputed the survey's findings, saying that their statistics show that the company is meeting or exceeding the state's service quality requirements, and that "customer service and performance levels have reached their highest level in years."

ORA conducted the surveys as part of the commission's overall review of SBC PacBell and Verizon.

In releasing the survey results, the group highlighted the negative results at SBC PacBell. Michael McNamara, ORA's senior manager for telecommunications, said the Verizon and SBC PacBell surveys amount to "a big, fat checkup" for the two companies, which together provide basic phone service for nearly 14 million California residents and businesses.

"It is critical for the PUC and the Legislature to understand that while SBC profits are going up, customer satisfaction is going down," ORA director Regina Birdsell said in a statement.

"In this recent survey, consumer satisfaction continues to decline in areas such as timeliness of installation and repairs, billing accuracy, overall work quality and customer service."

SBC PacBell spokesman John Britton called the company's service "outstanding," and added that it has provided same-day service for phone line installation and repairs for a year and a half.

In addition, he said, the percentage of dissatisfied residential customers has fallen to 10.7%, down from 18.6% in 1999.

"We maintain 18.4 million [phone] lines at 99.99% reliability," Britton said. "All the factual markers show the incredible progress that we've made."

McNamara called the SBC PacBell survey result "troublesome" because "it shows that customers have a lot more problems than they did in 1995."

Thirteen percent of the 881 customers who responded to the survey reported frequent static on phone lines, up from 8%; problems with longer installation and repair times were reported by 20% of the customers, up from 9% in 1995; and customer dissatisfaction with SBC PacBell's overall work increased to 39% from 17%. ORA sent more than 7,000 surveys to SBC PacBell customers.

Britton said the survey questions were poorly constructed and that ones dealing with call quality failed to distinguish between wired phones, cordless phones and cellular phones.

SBC Communications promised to maintain or improve customer service for five years after it purchased PacBell.

"PacBell tells us that [decreased quality] is not the case, and that the surveys they use internally say things are better," McNamara said.

But he downplayed the company's numbers, noting that they are "internal corporate surveys that are unaudited."

ORA and SBC PacBell have had tussles over service quality. In late 2000, the group filed a complaint with the PUC alleging that federal, self-reported statistics from SBC PacBell showed that the company's repair service quality had declined along with customer satisfaction.

A year later, the PUC ruled that the company's repair service had declined, and that it should be fined $600,000 per month if it continues to provide poor residential repair service.

SBC PacBell's Britton said the company has exceeded the new goals and has not paid any fines.

Verizon, for the most part, got improved scores from its customers, McNamara said.

"Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, [Verizon, then GTE] was having trouble with its service quality, big time," he said. The improvement demonstrates that the company heeded the commission's mandate that it improve service.

ORA sent more than 4,500 surveys to Verizon customers, and nearly 500 returned them.

Verizon spokesman Jonathan Davies said the company is generally happy with the survey results.

"We're pretty pleased with the results, because Verizon's made an effort over the last few years to provide the best service for its customers," he said.

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