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Bierbauer Charles Bierbauer, CNN's senior Washington correspondent, reports on events in Washington and around the globe. Noted for his expertise in presidential politics, Bierbauer has spent more years at the White House than any U.S. president except Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A Descent Into Cell Hell

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Jan. 16) -- We were approaching New York's Holland Tunnel the other day and I was on my cell phone trying to get directions to our destination in New Jersey.

The soothing voice of James Earl Jones -- "Welcome to Bell Atlantic" -- proved no welcome at all.

First, I didn't have a working "pin number" to complete that call in New York.

Then, I couldn't charge an 800-number call to my phone card. Just why was not clear. I had not yet connected with a living human being, just those ersatz voice recordings.

But I could charge it to a credit card. No, not Visa. A year ago Visa dropped out of the program. It was becoming apparent why.

An American Express card would work. And what is the Zip Code of the billing address on the card? A trick question. It's a corporate card. Billed to corporate headquarters in Atlanta.

Did I know the Atlanta Zip Code? Of course, not. Did the operator? I'd now found life on the other end of the phone. Of course, not.

"I'm in Boston," he said.

Cell Hell! A guy from Washington on a cellular phone in New York puzzling with an operator in Boston over the Zip Code in Atlanta.

I gave up on the unfathomable and drove into the tunnel.

---

Is there light at the end of the tunnel phone company deregulation has plunged all of us into?

The Supreme Court justices are contemplating whether they want to take the plunge into the regulatory maze. They will decide next week whether to hear arguments in three related cases challenging a lower court ruling against the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The act was designed to open up competition in local and long-distance services. However, the Eighth Circuit Court in St. Louis ruled last year that Congress had no business giving the Federal Communications Commission authority to set local phone rates. The circuit court's ruling served to protect local phone companies.

The long-distance carriers -- AT&T and MCI -- and the federal government all appealed the Eighth Circuit ruling in favor of the Iowa Utilities Board. Whatever the Supreme Court decides will affect phone operations across the country.

At stake is a $100 billion market in local phone services. The long-distance companies want a part of that, just as local phone companies want a share of the long-distance business.

"The court of appeals' decisions ... have greatly encumbered the process of opening that $100 billion market to competition and of ensuring the consumer the benefits that the 1996 Act was designed to provide," the FCC argues in its petition for a Supreme Court hearing.

The smaller local carriers contend they'd lose customers to "cherry picking" and "cream skimming" if the big carriers enter their markets. The locals allow there can be "progress toward competition in local markets ... without the FCC dictating pricing methodologies to the state commissions and competing carriers."

We've alternately cursed and reveled in the 1984 breakup of the phone company. We gave up the simplicity of dealing only with "Ma Bell" for the multiplicity of services we now can't do without. The FCC's petition to the high court notes that since the breakup consumers have also benefitted from an average 70 percent drop in long-distance prices.

Nothing the Supreme Court might do will necessarily break the hellish circles of frustration that our intricate take-along phone system creates. It won't spare us the endless beseechings to switch carriers. In fact, if the justices were to ultimately rule for the long-distance companies we may expect even more junk mail from more carriers begging our business.

---

In reality, we've got to count on the phone companies themselves to recognize the best way to win that business is to match their service to their promise.

After the New York trip I phoned the phone company here to find out why I'd had such trouble there.

First, the consumer affairs department's voice mail was "full". And what does that tell us?

Then, the announcement: "Please hold. Someone will be with you shortly" was followed by 20 seconds of silence ... and a dial tone. How not to win friends and customers.

My next call reached mobile phone operations -- "reliable service ... from Maine to the Carolinas." Oh, yeah! It also reached a living person.

"New York is a high fraud area," she said, explaining the need for a "pin number" as protection. "In your home area protection already exists."

Within minutes she had solved my problem with a new "pin number" and temporarily restored my confidence in the phone company.

A night or two later, my wife and I planned to treat our seven-year-old to a new theme restaurant. I called for directions from our home in Maryland to our destination in Virginia.

"Take exit 6 from the Capitol Beltway ..." the man on the phone (who worked for the restaurant chain) read from his instructions.

"What is that near?"

"I don't really know. I'm in North Dakota," he apologized.

I'd been in this circle of Hell before.

In Other News

Friday Jan. 16, 1998

Independent Counsel Likely In Babbitt Case
Calif. Dems Frustrated With Feinstein
April 7 Election Set For Bono's Seat
Republicans Move to Block Surgeon General Nominee
GOP To Vote On Abortion Litmus Test
Clinton, Lawyers To Meet Today On Jones Suit

Poll
Ebbing Support For Abortion On Demand

Pundits & Prose
Charles Bierbauer: A Descent Into Cell Hell





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