Saturday, April 26, 2008

Bring Back Telephone Company Regulation!

As I write this blog post, I’m furious. I just tried to make a long distance call on an AT&T pay phone at the Omni Hotel in Chicago. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, I gave up. Fortunately, the hostess at the bar on the same floor of the hotel was kind enough to let me use her phone (which wasn't a pay phone) to make the call I needed to make.

First, I tried to call an 800 number. (Specifically, 1-800-347-2861, which is the toll-free number for my voice mail company, American Voice Mail, in California.) I got a prerecorded message saying that was impossible. I’d made other 800 calls from that phone before, so that made no sense to me. I called the operator and asked, "Why won't this pay phone allow me to call this particular 800 number?" Instead of answering the question, he transferred me to a prerecorded message saying that only customer-dialed 800 numbers could be called from pay phones. But that was totally inappropriate, because the call in question had been "customer-dialed," since I'd dialed the number myself.

I then tried many times to call the company’s non-toll-free number, using my Visa card. Every time, I was asked which carrier I preferred. I had no idea. I tried several different carriers. Most carriers wouldn’t accept Visa cards in payment. When I asked the AT&T operator to tell me which ones would accept such cards, she had no idea. So I just had to keep trying until I could find a carrier which would accept such payment. At one point, I did find such a company, and I actually got through to American Voice Mail, but my first call didn’t get the person I needed (since I got no answer when I dialed 0 for the operator), so I needed to make another call. Unfortunately, I didn’t recall the name of the carrier I’d used, so I was back to square one.

I'd have placed the call using quarters, but apparently that's no longer possible with long distance calls.

AT&T customer service stinks when it comes to pay phones. Why? I suspect that it's because cell phones have become so ubiquitous these days that only poor people such as yours truly are forced to use pay phones on a frequent basis --- and giving good service to such customers isn't a high priority for AT&T.

Go ahead and visit the AT&T website. You'll find that they have information on all kinds of superfluous and trendy fluff (such as a service that allows you to make a wireless connection to American Idol), but little or nothing to do with pay phones. If you try to send them a message via their Contact Us function, there is virtually no option which enables you to do so unless you have a specific AT&T phone number and account in mind. I tried to send them a truncated message (1,000 characters or less) consisting of the basic information from this blog post, but I couldn't even do so, because I didn't have the phone number for the pay phone I'd been using (since I was sending the e-mail message from a computer located at a store across the street).

In the old days prior to deregulation, making a long distance call from a pay phone was a piece of cake. Now a simple call of that nature is as complicated and frustrating as it can possibly be.

If AT&T is going to confuse customers by expecting customers to select the long distance carrier instead of just going ahead and selecting that company themselves, then the least they could do, it seems to me, is to have a database which enables them to answer basic questions such as, "Will that company allow me to pay with my VISA card?" How are you supposed to intelligently select a carrier if they won't furnish you with the information you need in order to assess which carrier is best for your own needs and your own situation? My time is valuable. I have better things to do than stand there for half an hour or more, trying one long distance carrier after another and making notes about the ones which couldn't accept VISA cards and which ones could do so.

This is hardly the only time I've experienced phone problems related to deregulation. It seems to me that there is no longer any accountability when it comes to big companies such as AT&T. When you get lousy customer service, it's always someone else's fault, never their fault.

I'll be glad when I have my own phone again so that I don't have to use pay phones any more. I did have a phone account with RCN, but I fell behind on my payments, thanks to the fact that I'd been out of work for so long. So RCN cut me off. Currently, the only way for me to make a phone call is to either use a pay phone or else to impose on a friend and ask to use his phone. He's allowed me to do that in the past, but I can't count on that, and I don't want to alienate him by asking to use his phone on a regular basis.

Fortunately, most of the calls I need to make are local calls, and normal coins seem to work fine for such calls.

UPDATE: AT&T and Ameritech removed its pay phone from the Omni Hotel shortly after I wrote this blog post, so the Omni Hotel no longer has any pay phones at all! Ditto for Northwestern Hospital, just a few blocks east of the Omni.

I guess that explains why they didn't care about offering good service.

Thankfully, there are still a couple of pay phones at the nearby Dunkin' Donuts shop and also at the Palmer House Hilton down in the Chicago Loop. Those companies appear to be operated by different companies, so I'm hoping that they will remain available for a while, at least until I'm able to get back on my feet financially and get a phone of my own again. But I think it really stinks to see that pay phones are going the way of the dinosaurs.

I subsequently wrote another blog post about this subject as well.

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