Md. Panel Grills Verizon Over Delays in Repairs

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

Maryland regulators demanded an explanation from Verizon officials yesterday of why hundreds of customers have waited days and even weeks for telephone repairs this year, exceeding the state standard for missed service appointments for five months running.

In a heated hearing that stretched more than two hours, angry members of the Public Service Commission said they believe the 300 complaints filed by customers across the state represent a fraction of dissatisfied Verizon users, most of whom have not taken steps to contact regulators. Verizon executives said the problems were rare exceptions to a strong record of service.

The showdown with Verizon, Maryland's dominant provider of local and long-distance service with more 3 million customers, reflects what appears to be a customer-oriented approach to utility regulation under Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

The three commissioners at yesterday's hearing in Baltimore did not hide their frustration with Verizon representatives, challenging the company's assessment of what constitutes an acceptable delay in service and its efforts to keep details of problems from public view.

Commissioners said they fear the delays could leave customers who don't also have cellphone service with no way to call 911 in an emergency and expressed particular concern for those with medical conditions.

"For a person who doesn't have phone service for five days, an elderly person, that's the kind of thing we need to be concerned about," Chairman Steven B. Larsen told a Verizon attorney and director of customer operations. "Not having service is a public safety concern."

Eighty-four percent of Maryland's residential phone customers use Verizon.

Company officials said they are committed to improving service in Maryland, where Verizon is laying an extensive fiber-optic network to expand its Internet and television service.

"From our perspective, one complaint is too many," Leigh A. Hyer, vice president and general counsel for Maryland, told the commission.

She could not identify the reason for the delays and missed appointments but minimized the problems as "rare exceptions" to an otherwise good service record in Maryland. "We don't believe there is a service-quality crisis," she said.

State regulations allow phone technicians to miss up to 20 percent of their appointments. Chris Childs, Verizon's director of customer operations for parts of Maryland, said the company considers a delay of even five minutes a missed appointment. But Commissioner Lawrence Brenner said regulators were not hearing from customers whose technician arrived five minutes late.

"You have to get pretty frustrated to file a formal complaint with the Public Service Commission," he said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company