Wrong Number

WASHINGTON–What would Alexander Graham Bell think of it all? The new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport charges 25 cents for a local pay phone call. Telephone companies are determined to make customers pay for information calls to the operator and to replace flat rates with metered message units that the customer cannot verify. What’s more, telephone companies know that massive complexity of their equipment and service offerings can be the most lucrative merchandising policy to make customers pay more than they should if they only knew the difference.

For example, a Wisconsin firm wanted a new telephone system. The telephone company suggested a system. But a study by the firm of the official tariff document revealed that two other systems were available with savings of 30 to 45 percent respectively over the quotation submitted by the telephone company. Most business and residential consumers are either unaware of the contents or availability of the large tariff materials which must be filed by the telephone utility or they don’t know how to read it.

Thousands of similar pitfalls and contrived complexities await the customer of telephone service and as the costs ofsuch service rocket upward, a new market has emerged–the independent telephone consultant to guide one through the treacherous shoals of Ma Bell and its subsidiaries and satellites.

One such consultant, Frank K. Griesinger of Cleveland, Ohio, has written a new book called How To Cut Costs And Improve Service Of Your Telephone, Telex, TWX And Other Telecommunications (McGraw-Hill). Mr. Griesinger knows more than he puts into this book of advice to the unwary business customer of telephone equipment and services. But as he points out in his preface:

“This book is not intended to be a critique of the telecommunications industry.” What he does relate is how to grasp the differences in service, choose the least expensive, most suitable type and train employees to keep costs down. For instance he lists ways to shorten long distance calls (One approach he doesn’t mention is for people to stand up at their desk while making such calls).

Even without rendering critical judgments, the author details a pattern of complexity and hard-to-get information about telephone services that leaves even hard-headed business customers defenseless against “top of the line” telephone salesmen.

But, writes Mr. Griesinger. “once you see the thick volume in which tariffs are contained, you can understand why even an experienced telephone company salesman won’t know all the details about a particular piece of equipment or service which might be made to order for your particular problem…. Reserve a morning or afternoon for some leisurely reading. Then surprise your telephone company representative with your new knowledge about the complexities of his profession.”

The reader deserves some more basic evaluation by the experienced Mr. Griesinger. Why are the tariffs so complicated and abstruse? What about the state and federal regulatory agencies and why can’t the aggrieved customer effectively appeal to them for help? How is Ma Bell trying to stifle the new interconnect industry that is trying to inject some long needed competition against the Bell and Western Electric monopoly over equipment? What are the recognized abuses in the selling of the Yellow Pages? Why must customers pay a rental instead of making an outright purchase of equipment? How can consumers organize and develop workable strategies for basic changes in the ways they are treated?

There needs to be a telephone consumers’ action manual for use by people throughout the country. Three years ago, a citizens group in New York called Grass Roots started to take on the local telephone company for its deteriorating services and accelerating bills. But it could not reach enough residential consumers for contributions to keep it going.

If consumers would provide support for a local telephone users group to represent them, their complaints would be translated into reform. Industrial and commercial telephone users are beginning to organize themselves and none too soon, given the plans of Ma Bell.

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