Our discussion of the Bell System has come full circle, as so often happens in this space.
Each time I criticize or praise an organization, the first reaction I receive is from readers who hold an opposite view. But when I publish excerpts from letters written by people who hold an opposite view, I begin to hear from readers who are opposed to the opposite view. It's all very confusing.
The present episode began with my commenting unfavorably about the deterioration of several Bell System services - things like "busy" signals on lines that are really out of order, the quick reassignment of phone numbers, and deficiencies in "information" and "intercept" services.
Many readers rallied to Mother Bell's defense with alacrity. Essentially, most of them made the same point: The Bell System may not be perfect, but it is so much better than any other country's telephone system that we really shouldn't criticize it.
John R. Twark of Derwood, Md., was one of the few who dealt in specifics. C&P had discovered that it had been overcharging Twarf for the past seven years, so the company sent him a refund of $209.61. Twark was pleasantly surprised to find such honesty in a supposedly soulless corporation, and I published his letter of praise because I agreed with his evaluation.
The telephone company could have quietly continued to overcharge its customer, or could have corrected his rate without offering a rebate. Nobody would have been the wiser; therefore the decision to play fair was all the more commendable.
Naturally, examples to the contrary are now beginning to arrive. One from William A. Jardine of Rockville will serve to illustrate.
When the Jardines came to the Washington area in 1963, a member of the family needed a volume control device that C&P makes available. Jardine ordered the control and was charged extra for its each month.
About seven years later, C&P began giving its customers the option of buying volume controls instead of renting them. At first, the price was $45. Later it was increased to $49.50. On Sept. 1, 1977, it was dropped to $27.
Jardine, who just recently learned that he has for years had the option to buy rather than pay a monthly rental charge, asked that his monthly charges for the control be ended. He pointed out to the company and to the Maryland Public Service Commission that he had already paid out $150 to rent something that can be bought for $27. However, Mother Bell has denied the request, and the commission has backed the company. Only those rental payments made subsequent to September of 1977 can be credited to the $27 purchase price; nothing beyond that date.
Jardine feels that the Bell System has not treated him fairly because it "knew" he was overpaying for its service but never bothered to tell him about it. The company (backed by the commission) takes the position that it does keep its customers posted about what is available.
It points ot that it makes three actions designed to publicize new rates: It files new tarifts with the commission, it lists the new rates and options in its telephone directories, and it puts out "a statement accompanying the first bill after the installation of a single-payment option."
It is not my function to render a judgment in this dispute, but the position enunciated by the Bell System and the commission does raise a few questions in my mind.
Do you read all the new tariffs filed with the agency that regulates your state's public utilities?
Do you read all the small print in the front of each new telephone directory that is delivered to you?
Do you compare the text with that in previous directories to ascertain which portions are new?
Do you read all the advertising enclosures that accompany utility bills, department store bills, bamk statements and credit card statements?
If you answered yes to any of the foregoing, please explain how you find the time to do these things.
Meanwhile, I think we ought to give Mother Bell a rest for awhile. True, she is not a entirely consistent woman - but who in this mixed-up world really is consistent?