September 20, 2012
Let's take a quiz.
If a company repeatedly failed to meet a state rule designed to ensure good customer service, what should the regulating agency do?
A) Ignore the problem and hope the company improves; B) Talk to the company and ask it to improve; C) Penalize the company and force it to improve; D) Waive the rule so the company no longer breaks it. If you guessed D, as in dumb, you sure know your Pennsylvania government. That's what the state Public Utility Commission did last week in a case involving the state's largest phone company, Verizon.
In a testy resolution to a 5-year-old investigation into Verizon's customer service, the PUC approved a settlement in which Verizon agreed to reduce the number of missed appointments with customers and to spend $500,000 to improve its phone network in Pennsylvania. There's nothing wrong with that. What's wrong is the PUC let Verizon off the hook by exempting it from a rule it consistently had broken, to answer 85 percent of customer calls seeking repair service or to its business offices within 20 seconds during normal working hours.
Verizon had failed to meet that requirement for 24 consecutive months, the state's investigation found. Instead of requiring Verizon to improve its performance, the PUC opted to let Verizon answer to a less-stringent rule instead. It no longer must answer a certain number of calls in a certain time. All it must do from now on is report call center statistics, similar to what electric and natural gas companies must do. Those statistics include the rate of customers who get busy signals or hang up before they connect with an operator, and the percentage of calls answered within 30 seconds. Verizon had argued it shouldn't have to meet "far more onerous" requirements than electric and gas companies. The data reporting requirement still will allow the PUC to monitor Verizon's performance, spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said.
Verizon had contended the answering-time requirement was "neither realistic nor efficient." It said in written arguments submitted to the PUC that in today's highly competitive telecommunications marketplace, customers don't expect to have their calls answered that quickly that often. It cited a survey that found average wait times of between one and two minutes for calls to banks and credit card, cellphone, cable, satellite and Internet companies. The survey concluded that most people consider a wait time of less than two minutes to be reasonable.
In their motion to approve the agreement, PUC Commissioners Robert Powelson and John Coleman said they agreed with Verizon's arguments. They said in their motion the phone industry has changed since that answering-time regulation was written in 1988, when Verizon was a simple phone company with no competition. Now, Verizon gets more calls, which are more complex and take longer, because the phone industry includes other services such as Internet. Powelson and Coleman said removing the requirement "should not adversely impact" Verizon's performance. They said it appeared holding Verizon to the regulation "would be enforcement for enforcement's sake." "We believe that the competitive market will provide sufficient incentives for Verizon ...to meet reasonable customer expectations," they wrote in their motion.
If that's the case, the PUC should do away with the regulation for all phone companies. The rule either is necessary or it isn't, and it shouldn't be enforced selectively. What's next? Excusing a natural gas company from meeting safety regs?
If you think that's too extreme of a comparison, Commissioner James Cawley doesn't think so. He opposed the settlement and raised that example in his sharply worded dissenting statement. I told you the resolution was testy. Cawley said the settlement "provides an unfortunate and ill-timed signal" that quality-of-service issues "do not really matter." He was disturbed the commission would waive a regulatory standard "to accommodate the interests" of a company that could not meet the standard. He said the PUC wasn't doing its job. "I find these outcomes greatly disturbing and not consistent with the statutory duties of this commission," Cawley wrote.
The Office of Consumer Advocate, which represents utility customers, and the Communications Workers of America, the union representing Verizon workers, also don't like the idea. Allowing Verizon to submit "what amounts to informational filings" about its call center performance instead of requiring it to meet benchmarks doesn't hold Verizon accountable, assistant consumer advocate Shaun Sparks wrote in comments submitted to the PUC. "This is far too vague regarding what level of performance constitutes reasonable and adequate service, and cannot be reasonably evaluated in terms of whether it is in the public interest," he wrote.
Sparks said the settlement does not address the underlying issue of why Verizon failed to answer customer calls in the required time. Scott Rubin, an attorney for the Communications Workers of America, said in written comments that not holding Verizon to the call-answering requirement could hurt the labor force because it "would permit Verizon to divert its call center resources to other states that continue to enforce similar standards." Rubin said the PUC should respond instead with "meaningful enforcement" to make Verizon follow the rule. Allentown Morning Call
At the last Greencastle (Franklin Co.) Borough Council meeting, Borough Manager Ken Womack announced a renegotiated franchise agreement with Comcast that includes a free public access cable TV channel for the borough. At Tuesday night's joint meeting between Greencastle Borough Council, Antrim Township supervisors and the Greencastle-Antrim School Board, leaders discussed possible uses for the channel and how it will be managed. Womack explained that per the new franchise agreement, the channel belongs to the Borough of Greencastle. However, the borough can designate another entity, like the school district, to run it.
Greencastle Mayor Robert Eberly suggested forming a small committee of representatives of the three boards to "know the framework we're working with" and decide how the channel will be run. Antrim Township Supervisor James Byers asked what costs would be involved to run the station. "If we don't do this right, it won't be very effective," he said. Dr. C. Gregory Hoover, Greencastle-Antrim School District superintendent, added that someone will need to be in charge of running the channel. Like any regular television station, he said, "someone has to be the station manager."
Members of the three boards discussed what the content for the channel would be. Womack suggested the channel could be used to broadcast sporting events, community events or concerts. Hoover said the school district had a public access channel in the 1990s, the high school offered a TV production class and students did most of the work to put programming on the station. "Back then, we didn't have the capability to run (the channel) live, but in this day and age, I'm sure that's changed," Hoover said.
Greencastle-Antrim School Board President Eric Holtzman said that a similar channel used in York broadcasts school delays and closings, agenda items and meeting information for municipal governing boards. "We have to take a really good look at it," said Hoover, noting "(Comcast) isn't offering us any cameras or editing equipment." "It would be nice if they had someone who's already doing it that we could talk to - find out how they're managing it, what expenses they have," he added. Waynesboro (Franklin Co.) Record Herald
Gov. Corbett was repeatedly interrupted by protesters during a town-hall meeting Wednesday night at the Philadelphia Museum of Art organized by a talk-radio host. WPHT's Dom Giordano ended the event a half-hour earlier than its planned 90 minutes when it became clear that Corbett could not answer questions without being shouted at inside Van Pelt Auditorium. Police removed more than 10 people from the meeting. At one point, protesters interrupted the program for seven minutes. Groups unfurled banners and chanted against expanding the state prison system, "Fund education, not incarceration." There were shouts against Corbett's support of Marcellus Shale drilling, his cuts in welfare, and his signing of a death warrant for Terrance Williams, who is to be executed Oct. 3.
Giordano asked Corbett about GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's comment that 47 percent of Americans did not pay taxes or take responsibility for their lives. Other Republicans on Wednesday responded by attacking President Obama for a statement he made in 1998 about favoring redistribution of wealth. But Corbett stuck with a familiar refrain. "The vast majority of people, I don't think they can say they are better off today than they were four years ago," Corbett said. philly.com
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