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AT&T to give 100,000 rebates Billing errors lead to refunds; cable trial signups halted


By Jennifer Files / The Dallas Morning News

Because of extensive billing errors in its new local telephone business, AT&T Corp. is rebating all December long-distance charges for about 100,000 Texas customers.

AT&T also recently stopped signing up new customers for a trial of its new telephone-over-cable service in Carrollton, largely because too many subscribers temporarily lost phone service when they switched over. Another trial, involving a new wireless local phone technology, is proceeding without major problems, officials said.

Once America's dominant local phone company, AT&T is new again to the local phone business, and it's starting over without a network of local phone lines. The company is using three technologies to reach customers' homes - cable, fixed wireless and, most commonly, leased equipment from local phone companies such as Southwestern Bell.

Only Dallas-Fort Worth customers are currently trying all three.

"If it's happening anywhere it's all going to be happening here at the same time," said Southwest region vice president Dale Bennett, who oversees AT&T's local cable operations. "Unfortunately, it's going to take some time for all of us to mesh the processes together."

Mr. Bennett and other AT&T executives called the current troubles start-up issues that they're already a long way toward correcting. The company will compensate customers for overcharges and lost phone service, they said.

"We've made a heck of a lot of progress in the last four weeks," said Phil Tonge, AT&T's president of consumer services for the Southwest region. The company is substantially increasing its customer service staff and giving them more training. Complaint volumes were down 80 percent in the last month, he said.

But the problems have affected thousands of customers, tarnishing AT&T's reputation for reliable service. "They're upsetting more people right now than they're making happy," said Addison resident James Burkhalter, who lost service for several days while trying to switch from Southwestern Bell to AT&T.

Customers complain of missed appointments, long waits on hold and customer service workers who can't answer questions or who give inaccurate information. Some say they've been told they can't keep their old phone numbers if they give up on AT&T and return to their former phone companies - though officials said their numbers should be transferable in nearly all cases.

Others say that when they canceled AT&T local service, technicians who removed equipment left wires hanging off the side of their homes.

"I have a feeling that the company fathers at AT&T don't know what their technicians are doing," said Terry Haynes, manager of regulatory issues at Irving-based GTE Corp. Mr. Bennett said equipment should be removed neatly.

Most problems occur when AT&T switches over a customer and begins to provide service. Transferring information from Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. or GTE Corp. is complicated, and one company doesn't always know what the other has done.

So, for instance, about 200 of the company's 1,000 cable-telephony customers in Carrollton temporarily lost service because AT&T and GTE, their previous local phone company, didn't properly coordinate the transfer.

Mr. Bennett says AT&T is updating its software and working with GTE to improve the switching process. Some customers were issued mobile phones while they didn't have local service, he said.

The billing problems affected a different set of customers, which AT&T serves over leased Southwestern Bell equipment.

At least several hundred customers were charged long-distance rates for local phone calls during December.

AT&T said it will issue a credit for all long-distance charges during that month, even legitimate calls. The company is also re-checking all calls made since mid-August and will issue credits for overbilled calls by March.

"Rather than have customers worry that they may have been impacted, let's tell them what happened and thank them for their patience," Mr. Tonge said. He wouldn't say how much the company will be paying out in credits.

Part of the reason AT&T is starting its new local phone services slowly is to identify such problems and fix them before advertising more broadly - something it expects to do next month, before Southwestern Bell gains regulatory permission to begin competing for its long-distance customers.

But AT&T officials say they didn't expect local service to be this hard to provide.

"Competition is a messy business," Mr. Bennett said. "It is much more complicated than I originally believed."

Judy Walsh, a commissioner with the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates the state's local phone companies, said she is optimistic that AT&T will solve the service problems. "AT&T won't be in your market in a big way if they don't get these things fixed," she said.

But she added that AT&T's size makes it uniquely positioned to offer widespread local competition to residential customers - a market segment many customers are ignoring. "If AT&T works through this and does in fact provide a real alternative for residential service, everybody is going to benefit."

-- Martin Thompson (, February 09, 2000

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