By Ben Joravsky

On Tuesday, June 27, Debra Hatchett, managing director of Bailiwick Repertory, is skeptical that she’ll finally get her new phone lines the next day as promised. “As hard as this may be to believe,” she says, “it’s taken us over four months to get these new lines. Actually, it’s probably not hard to believe, since I now know from what other people tell me that we’re not alone at all. It seems like no one can get basic service anymore.”

Hatchett’s troubles began last winter when she decided to use telephone sales to sell more tickets. That meant hiring four sales representatives–cold callers–and installing four new lines. “We wanted to bring more income into the theater by selling advance tickets,” she says. “We have our reps call and ask if the people want to buy a subscription. Even if they say no, you still have made the contact. It may sound old-fashioned, but calling someone is the best way to get the word out.”

She never imagined it would be hard to get new lines, since so many companies were eager to offer her service. “We were getting solicitations all the time–salesmen literally walking in off the street,” she says. “They wanted us to switch our regular lines from Ameritech.”

As she recalls, many of the salespeople were fast talkers, offering one too-good-to-be-true deal or another. “They all had special deals–do this or do that to save a penny a minute. To tell you the truth, I didn’t understand them.”

But most of the companies were offering to charge less than Ameritech’s monthly fee–as much as 15 percent less, so she decided to go with a company called Nextlink. That was in early March. “They came in and filled out a contract,” says Hatchett. “I showed their guy where we wanted the phones installed. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll get you set up.’ But a week went by and he hadn’t called. I called him, and he said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I’ll talk to my manager.’ Finally, about two weeks later he called and said they will make an installation appointment in three weeks.”

The installer never came. “Someone called from Nextlink and said they were having trouble with their lines,” says Hatchett. “They said someone else will call to reschedule. Then another week went by and I still hadn’t heard. So I called them to reschedule.”

A second installation appointment was made for late April. “But again they didn’t show,” says Hatchett. “I immediately phoned them to see what was the problem, and the sales rep gave me some ridiculous story about not having enough room in their switch box. That’s what she said, word for word. I have no idea what that means. I don’t think she knows either. I said, ‘Well, when will there be enough room?’ She said, ‘We don’t know. It might be two months or longer.’ Of course that was not acceptable. I mean, by now I’ve been waiting for over a month–and they want me to wait another two months? Give me a break.”

She says by then she’d had enough of “bargain-basement things.” But not quite. “I decided to call another company–CoreComm. I explained the situation to their sales rep, and he said, ‘No problem.’ They made an appointment. But guess what? They didn’t show either. No phone call, no comment–nothing. Just a no-show. Now I’m really aggravated because it’s like a cable company. They don’t give you a time of day as to when they’re going to show up. They just give you the day. So you have to sit around waiting, beginning at eight in the morning. I called them back, and the operator says, ‘Oh, I’m sure they’ll be there tomorrow.’ But tomorrow came and went and they didn’t show. I got on the phone and called them looking for a straight answer. I must have called and complained a dozen times.”

Finally Hatchett got a return call from a CoreComm representative I’ll call Joey. “He explained that the problem is that Ameritech is the only company licensed to install phone lines,” she says. “In other words, CoreComm or Nextlink may sell me the service, but they have to depend on Ameritech to hook it up. ‘We’re at the mercy of Ameritech’s schedule.’ That’s what he told me. And he was very convincing. I almost felt sorry for them. I mean, these delays are hurting my little company, but think what it’s doing for them! I wonder how they can survive. He was very sweet and apologetic and helpful. I wanted to scream at him, but poor little [Joey]–there’s nothing he can do. He’s as helpless as me.”

He did arrange another installation date. “He said they would install the lines on July 5,” Hatchett says, “although I’d pretty much given up on believing them.”

Then out of nowhere, Nextlink called back. “I hadn’t contacted them in weeks, after their rep said it would be two months before installation,” says Hatchett. “But she calls and says, ‘We have an installation date for you.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ She said no. So I figure I’ll play this game, and she booked me for tomorrow [June 28] at 2 PM. Someone is supposed to show up and hook up our lines. We’ll see. I honestly don’t expect him to show. I’ve been promised so many times. I’ve had to change my schedule and make sure I’m here, even though Wednesday is my day off. These phone reps do sound sincere though. They say it’s an outrage, and they want to go public. They said they would talk to a reporter to say how Ameritech’s screwing up.”

But when I called Joey he said he was too busy too talk right then and would call back (he didn’t). When I called the woman from Nextlink she stammered a few comments about how everything was Ameritech’s fault, then put me on hold. She came back to say she couldn’t talk because she was busy doing something else.

“Let me guess–the other companies are blaming us, right?” says Michael King, a spokesman for Ameritech. “That’s not accurate.” He says the delays are the result of an onslaught of requests and a shortage of trained installation technicians. “Yes, it’s true that we control the phone lines, but we have to sell those lines– the Illinois Commerce Commission makes us, for competitive reasons. If any company feels we aren’t doing so in a timely fashion they can file a complaint with the ICC. These things are regulated.”

Perhaps, King says, the problem is that the new phone businesses–known in the trade as “cooperative companies” because they’re supposed to work cooperatively with Ameritech–are expanding too fast. “Here’s how it works,” he says. “Some company will identify a hot neighborhood on the north side, and they’ll have their salesmen call people cold. They’ll come up with a list of, say, 300 phone lines that they want to buy from us. Then they come to us to switch over all those numbers. It’s a massive switch, and sometimes out of 300 numbers 298 go through and 2 don’t. It’s very complicated, but overall I say we’re doing a great job.

“It’s not just on the north side. They’re going door-to-door in the suburbs. A salesperson will show up at someone’s door and say, ‘Hey, we can discount your local service by ten percent.’ And we don’t dispute that. Why? Because they’re cherry picking our most profitable services. See, we’re the universal service provider. We’re required to make sure that everyone gets service. We have to run a full cable out to some farmer–that’s the same amount of cable as for 3,000 people in a high-rise, but obviously not nearly as much customer use.”

Martin Cohen, executive director of the consumer watchdog group Citizens Utility Board, says that Ameritech might not be under so much stress if it hadn’t spent so much money on its merger with communications conglomerate SBC. “This goes back to the big breakup of AT&T back in 1984,” he says. “The company was busted into about ten pieces. They’ve been figuring out how to get back together ever since.”

Cohen goes on, “In my opinion, Ameritech is not overwhelmed by service requests so much as they don’t want to spend the money. Ameritech’s now just a cog in a wheel–an arm of a bigger company that has other interests than the welfare of captive consumers in Illinois. The merger agreement under which SBC took over Ameritech required that they had to enter 30 new markets outside their core service territory. That means that they had to figure out how to enter markets in, oh, Seattle, Atlanta, Miami, and so forth. They agreed to do that within a specified period of time, I believe 18 months. But what about us folks in Illinois? Well, SBC has to pull resources out of Illinois and focus them elsewhere. So it’s up to regulators in Illinois to keep them honest here and make sure the quality is maintained. They have standards they have to meet, and we don’t feel they’re meeting them.”

According to Cohen, the great technological breakthroughs of the last decade–all the new gadgets telecommunication giants are forever peddling–haven’t benefited the average consumer. On the contrary, the average consumer is now seen as an unprofitable, unglamorous pain in the neck. “We get calls every day from people with complaints like Hatchett’s. We know it’s only the tip of the iceberg. If we get ten calls we know there are 10,000 who have the same problem. It’s alarming. The theory of the phone companies is, you’re going to benefit from competition between different technologies. So wireless will compete with wired, or cell phones will compete with line phones. But for most people it’s pie in the sky. Most consumers are stuck with Ameritech. We’re as dependent as ever.

“The funny thing is that Ameritech won’t even acknowledge that they have a monopoly. They’ll talk about the hundreds of thousands of phone lines served by other providers, as though it’s all Adam Smith–open markets and free choice. I’ve heard them testify with straight faces at ICC and FCC hearings that they have a fully competitive market.”

Who does Cohen blame for the mess, Ameritech or the start-up companies? “We tend to sympathize with the new companies when they blame Ameritech,” he says. “I mean, Ameritech has no incentive to see that it’s going smoothly; since they have a monopoly on installations and most consumers have no alternative, why should they bend over backwards to give you better service? On the other hand, it’s true that a lot of these companies are better at marketing than anything else. It’s almost enough to make us long for the good old days of Ma Bell.”

All of this is largely academic to Hatchett. Nextlink’s technician did show up on June 28, but he installed only one line. “He had some excuse–which I didn’t understand–and he said he would come back,” says Hatchett. “But it’s like everything else. I don’t know if he really knows what he’s talking about or if he’s just making this stuff up. It really doesn’t matter. I’m giving in. I think I’m going to have to bite the bullet and bow to the prince of Ameritech. I don’t like it, but I’ll have to do it. There’s no sense crying about it. At this point all you can do is laugh.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.