ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Telephone customers say they've been caught in the middle of bickering by phone companies and getting bad service as a result.
The Regulatory Commission of Alaska ordered a hearing that began Thursday to investigate a recent surge of customer complaints about delays in getting new phone service. The commission told Alaska Communications Systems and General Communication Inc. to provide answers on the issue.
Testimony came from a businessman who said he lost more than a $1,000 a day for weeks while his phone hookup was delayed, a mother without reliable phone service for her latchkey kids, a volunteer who said senior citizens and disabled people have difficulty getting a low-cost phone service safety net program.
The complex debate shed a light on problems related to deregulation. The current hearing is the commission's latest attempt to sort out the issues that arise when telephone companies must simultaneously cooperate and compete.
Markus Lee testified Thursday that GCI told him there was no equipment available to install a phone line at his residence near Jewel Lake and Raspberry roads, but ACS told him there was. An ACS representative got Lee and a GCI representative on the line together, and Lee said he listened to the two of them debate conflicting information on their respective monitors.
''From a consumer standpoint, it was a black hole,'' said Lee, who added that he has a son with medical problems and only gets patchy cell phone reception from his home.
Customers testified that service requests to GCI took weeks to process, but only days with ACS. That is not supposed to happen in the state's deregulation plan, under which competitors lease lines owned by ACS.
ACS said it processes orders through two queues and acknowledged a backlog in the one with GCI's service requests. ACS said it had reduced that backlog by adding staff and approving hundreds of hours of overtime.
Laying wire to new construction is another point of contention.
When ACS took over city-owned telephone company Anchorage Telephone Utility in the late 1990s, it took on the responsibility of laying new lines. But ACS has argued it does not have ATU's built-in customer base to cover those infrastructure costs. Customers today may switch to GCI.
The regulatory commission granted ACS a rate increase as compensation for the different market conditions, but ACS maintains it wasn't enough. GCI says that's life in the deregulated fast lane and that customers benefit from competition.
Customers Thursday didn't sound convinced.
Xpress Lube co-owner Dan Coffey said his company put in a start-service order for a new location eight weeks ago. When GCI came to hook up service, there were no phone lines, he said. Coffey said ACS required Xpress Lube to sign up for a year of its services before installing the line. Coffeey said the delay cost roughly $1,000 per day for three weeks.
The regulatory commission has asked ACS and GCI to explain how orders from different providers are processed, and how any disparity should be fixed. The commission also listed solutions it could impose if it didn't hear anything better, such as a single queue for all companies' service requests.
The commission, which began hearing from ACS and GCI on Thursday, will finish the hearing Tuesday, then decide if it has enough information to rule on the matter. State law gives the commission a year to act.
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