California lawmakers need sharper thinking, reality check on telecoms policy

16 May 2016 by Steve Blum
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Not everyone is 99 and 44/100% pure.

No one expected zero problems when Frontier took over Verizon’s telephone systems in California last month. At least no one who understands that big telecommunications companies are complicated and not particularly predictable. It’s a lesson that California lawmakers should take to heart, as they consider allowing AT&T to replace wireline service with cell phones at will.

Frontier added about two million customers to its existing 200,000 subscriber base in California, scattered across 150 telephone exchanges that range from the best infrastructure in the state – FiOS-brand fiber to the home – to the worst. Really, the worst. Many of Verizon’s rural systems were never even upgraded to 1990s style DSL.

When the cutover happened, the complaints started rolling in. At the time, it was hard to tell whether it was due to significant problems, or just social media blowback from people who thought their particular troubles were the most important thing in world. It turns out it was a little bit of both.

The Los Angeles Times ran a good story on the transition. Some problems were due to glitches that happens all the time but you don’t notice until it happens at the same time something else changes, and then the two events are forever welded together in your mind. A squirrel chewing through cable or a car hitting a pole doesn’t make the news unless it happens on the day a new company takes over.

Some were clearly Verizon’s fault, and there was little Frontier could do about it ahead of time. Poor record keeping resulted in Verizon turning over mismatched lists of equipment lists and customer accounts, which prevented Frontier from reauthorising some services immediately, such as pay per view movies.

Frontier fumbled too, according the Times. An auxiliary call center was activated in the Philippines, but it wasn’t able to handle the flood of customer service calls that came in.

Best guess, according the Times, is that about 10,000 customers experience one glitch or another during the cutover, some more serious than others. Out of two million, that’s not horrible on a percentage basis but it can look like a crisis when you’re on the receiving end of the complaints, as state and local officials have been for the past few weeks.

So it’s no surprise that politicians are jumping into the game. Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), the chair of the assembly utilities and commerce committee, is holding a special hearing next week to look into it. I don’t know if he’ll learn much that’ll be of any use for Frontier customers – most of their troubles are behind them. But if it makes him less naive about accepting AT&T’s bland assurances about plans to get out of the copper wire business, it would be a good thing for everyone.