A Hard Cell

There are a million Qwest stories in the naked city. This is just one of them.

On Sunday, Qwest Communications International announced that it will erase close to a billion bucks in alleged revenue from its books in an attempt to satisfy not just investors, but congressional investigators currently grilling company executives.

A billion bucks, gone like that. But Qwest can take some consolation in the small fortune I've been dunned since I bundled my home phone in with cell-phone service two years ago.

When I paid my combined Qwest bill with a credit card last Friday, the total was so startling that Visa's fraud department called a few hours later, certain that someone had stolen my card. No one, the alert Visa man informed me, could ring up that large a tab in two months -- particularly when her cell phone wasn't even working.

So true, I replied, but while I sorted through the charges, I couldn't risk having my home phone cut off -- and it had a date with a disconnect notice at the end of the month.

My home phone was cut off Monday, anyway. "Our mistake," said the Qwest customer-service rep in Georgia unfortunate enough to pick up my call early Tuesday morning. (Remember when US West actually serviced the Rocky Mountain region?) "Expect service in two to 24 hours. No charge."

But no billion-buck refund, either.

When I told Miss Georgia that I was sick of my inexplicable cell-phone bill and wanted to disconnect that service, she gladly sent me to another number.

Where I was on hold for half an hour before I hung up.

I have never been one with my cell phone.

Cell phones are a societal menace. In the hands of motorists, they're deadly; in the hands of bored socializers, who jump at every ring on the off chance that the person on the other end of the line might be more interesting than the person they're sitting with, they're disheartening.

In my case, though, because my cell phone is linked to my home number -- a pathetic attempt to maintain some semblance of self when a young relative moved into my house two years ago (but that's another story) -- back when my cell phone was able to ring, the caller usually was a person from Qwest trying to sell me another fabulous Qwest product.

Which could then appear on my next bill.

When Meredith McCrae started working in Qwest Wireless's billing department in June 2001, over a hundred people were in her department. When she left at the end of May this year, not long before reviled CEO Joe Nacchio was booted from the premises, only nineteen were left; the rest had been reassigned or laid off. "When Nacchio earned $100 million a year, how many employees would that hire?" she asks.

"Every single person had a story about Qwest and how horrible it was," McCrae recalls -- and those people were both inside and outside of Qwest. "Sometimes they would just never get billed; sometimes they'd get billed for ten months. Every day I would see problems that were recurring, and nobody seemed to care. 'That's not my job' was everyone's favorite line."

People who had problems with their home phones at least had some options -- and although she wasn't working on that side of the business, McCrae tried to point those options out.

"But basically," she concludes, "there's no one to complain to when you have a wireless phone."

Dian Callaghan knows that all too well. Like Colorado's Public Utilities Commission, the Office of Consumer Counsel -- the independent state division where Callaghan works -- hears regularly from people having trouble with their phone service. "We try to help the customers resolve complaints," Callaghan says. But while local home-phone service is regulated and thus subject to some governmental oversight, cellular service and DSL are not.

Although the OCC can't do much about some services, it can at least educate consumers. For example, it publishes comparisons of telephone rates, both local and long distance. And while a fresh survey isn't due until sometime this fall, one bargain is already a hands-down winner: calling cards from Sam's Club that run just 3.5 cents a minute.

Callaghan offers another priceless piece of advice: "You can't have your local service disconnected for failure to pay long distance, wireless or DSL." Sure, your long distance, wireless or DSL can be disconnected -- but not your basic phone service, not if you've covered those costs (or even made a good-faith effort to do so).

Not that it's easy to decipher those costs in the complicated small print of your bill.

Some of those fees are set by the feds, some by state governments, some by municipalities, some by the companies themselves. AT&T, for example, lists a "universal connectivity charge" that's 11.5 percent of interstate charges, when most other long-distance services charge about 8.6 percent. "The federal government doesn't admit they impose that, but they do," says Callaghan of the charge. "They ask for contributions from all telcos for the federal Universal Service Fund -- for schools, low-income areas, libraries, rural health-care providers. Each of the carriers then imposes that charge to recoup the amount they contribute."

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