Ameritech must pay up : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Published Wednesday, September 20, 2000, in the Akron Beacon Journal.

Ameritech must pay up PUCO repeats order to reimburse consumers $5.1 million for missed and late repairs, scoffs at vow to add 88 workers BY CHRISTINA HANGE KUKUK Beacon Journal staff writer

The Ohio Public Utilities Commission is sticking to its guns in ordering Ameritech to reimburse consumers $5.1 million for missed or late phone repair service -- a decision that could force the issue into the Ohio Supreme Court.

And Monday's announcement that the company will put 88 more employees on the job repairing and installing phone lines in Ohio did not sway any votes.

At least one state will receive more than four times as much. About 415 additional workers will be transferred or reassigned to work in Illinois, and 335 in Michigan.

Commissioners yesterday issued a statement rebuking Ameritech for trying to get out of paying most of the $5.1 million in credits the PUCO ordered July 20.

Ameritech, a subsidiary of SBC Communications of San Antonio, earlier disputed the order, saying it owed only $1.8 million because commissioners counted multiline business customers the same as residential customers who are entitled to faster repair service.

But in re-examining minimum service standards the company signed in 1996, commissioners decided their original figures were correct. And they reiterated that if the company does not improve service, it faces another $122 million in penalties.

The decision passed 3-2. One commissioner cast a dissenting vote because she favored stiffer penalties, and another for technical reasons, PUCO spokeswoman Beth Gianforcaro said.

All agreed the company has service quality problems.

``When confronted with all the evidence presented in this case, Ameritech continues to argue that it has done nothing wrong,'' the commission stated. ``The commission believes the amount of the forfeitures is justified.''

Ameritech's next recourse is an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. Otherwise, the PUCO order is effective immediately.

Company officials did not return calls late yesterday.

The state regulators' decision came a day after Ameritech announced it would import some out-of-state repair technicians and reassign others to eliminate a service backlog in its five-state region within six months.

Going by numbers alone, Ohio ranks third in Ameritech's plan.

The company promised to add 88 technicians to the ranks of those responding to service calls in Ohio. Of those, 19 will be borrowed from other SBC regions and 69 will be transferred from construction work to service and installation.

In Illinois, Ameritech promised 415 additional employees, 140 from SBC and 275 from construction, said Ilana Isakov, an Ameritech spokeswoman in Cleveland. In Michigan, Ameritech promised 335, with 120 from SBC and 215 from construction.

Regulators in both states, as in Ohio, have authority to levy penalties because of alternative regulation plans Ameritech agreed to in the past.

Illinois' Commerce Commissioner Terry Harvill said he hoped that pressure applied by Illinois regulators contributed to the larger number of technicians being assigned to the state.

In Indiana and Wisconsin, where regulators lack the power to levy major penalties against Ameritech, the company committed an additional 70 employees to service and installation in each state.

The additional employees were assigned based on need and current employment efforts already under way, Ameritech spokesman Dave Pacholczyk said.

Ohio commissioners have adopted a wait-and-see attitude regarding Ameritech's promise Monday. They want to see results in October, Gianforcaro said.

Consumer advocates also remain skeptical about whether the additional workers will have a significant impact on service. After almost a decade of downsizing, the company has a lot of ground to cover to make up for its poor service, said Ellis Jacobs, an attorney who has represented Ohio consumers against Ameritech.

``I seriously doubt adding 88 technicians is going to restore them to the staffing levels they had before the downsizing,'' he said.

Illinois' Commerce Commission arguably has made the most noise about Ameritech's poor service record as the number of complaints against the company skyrockets.

Last week, Richard Mathias sent a scathing letter to Edward Mueller, newly appointed president and CEO of Ameritech.

The company faces $34 million in penalties in that state, and the timing could not be worse. Legislators are preparing to rewrite the state's telecommunications act early next year. While the commission's current power to penalize phone companies lies in voluntary agreements and merger conditions, those somewhat weaker weapons may be given the muster of state law, said Harvill, the commissioner.

``If I'm a legislator, I don't know how I could stand up right now and say I think this company should be further deregulated,'' Harvill said. ``I don't think competition is a panacea for this problem.''

-- Martin Thompson (, September 20, 2000

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