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mmuller - Sun, Aug 1, 2010, 6:02 P
AG probes bad phone service in rural Mass.

AG probes bad phone service in rural Mass.

By BEN STORROW Staff Writer
Published on July 30, 2010

The number of Verizon customers in western Massachusetts reporting problems with their phone service is higher than anywhere else in the state except southeastern Massachusetts, according to the state attorney general's office.

And the number of complaints here is 60 percent higher than in the Boston area.

Those findings were filed by the attorney general's office as part of the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable's investigation into Verizon telephone service throughout the region. They also came several weeks before reports of widespread telephone and Internet service outages in Shutesbury, where 50 residences reported a loss of telephone service, Internet service or both over the first two weeks of July.

The incident attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who wrote to Verizon's regional president urging the company to cooperate with the state investigation. The DTC is currently conducting a regional service investigation, which also includes looking into allegations of faulty phone service in the towns of Leverett, Hancock, Rowe and Egremont. Verizon is the sole provider of landline phone service in both Shutesbury and Leverett.

The attorney general's report says that the number of average monthly trouble reports per hundred lines, or RPHLs, is high in western Massachusetts. The Springfield district, which covers the four counties in western Massachusetts, had 257,750 Verizon phone lines and reported an average of 3,649 monthly trouble reports in 2009, giving the region an RPHL score of 1.4.

Boston, in comparison, had 360,445 Verizon phone lines and saw 3,121 monthly reports, receiving an RPHL score of 0.9, the lowest in the state. The Marlboro district had 444,321 lines, 5,432 monthly reports and an RPHL of 1.2, while the Southeast district had 405,426 lines, 6,321 reports and an RPHL of 1.6.

Yet those numbers do not tell the story of phone service in rural western Massachusetts, the Attorney General's report says. Urban areas like Springfield receive better phone service than rural areas, thus improving the region's average for number of monthly trouble reports. The Springfield region had far more wire centers witnessing RPHLs of 3.0 to 4.0 between January and August 2009 than any other region in the state, the report said.

The Amherst wire center had RPHL scores of 1.49 in February, 3.5 in July and 3.42 in October 2009.

"With an RPHL that is almost 60 percent higher than that experienced by their counterparts who reside in the Boston district, Western Massachusetts consumers clearly are not receiving reasonably comparable service," the report stated.

Corroded wires

Leverett Selectman Peter d'Errico says the phone service complaints in his town are similar to those reported in other communities. "Calls are dropped, dial tones are lost and the situation is exacerbated when there is any sort of dampness in the air."

D'Errico thinks the problem is due to holes in the telephone wires, which are known as "open plants."

"There were hundreds and hundreds of situations where Verizon had not done any fixing [of open plants]," d'Errico said in an interview this week. "Gradually over the years that has left the stuff unprotected and allowed corrosion to come in. The wires that had been exposed, and where the weather was getting in, are in bad shape. Now it is not just fixing the hole, there is damage inside."

According to the attorney general's report, Verizon has fixed 1,248 open plants in western Massachusetts and has plans to repair an additional 3,500 by the end of 2010. However, the company had completed only 16 percent of those repairs as of May, the attorney general's report said.

The DTC investigation will determine whether the state believes Verizon will fix the problems on its own, whether the threat of an investigation will be enough for the company to rectify the situation or whether there is a need for continuing state oversight, d'Errico said.

"The department is now carefully analyzing the evidence and briefs and will be issuing a decision within the next few months," DTC spokeswoman Kofi Jones said in an email to the Bulletin.

Rain's effect

Meanwhile, residents in rural towns anxiously await the state's ruling.

"If it rains you don't have any telephone service in Shutesbury," said Mary Anne Antonellis, a town resident and the local librarian. She said she was without phone service at her house while the M.N. Spear Memorial Library had only intermittent Internet service between July 1 and 15.

"It is a big joke up there. People will say, ‘It rained, that's why you didn't have a phone yesterday,' " Antonellis said.

Phil Santoro, Verizon spokesman, disputed the notion that his company provides substandard service to the region.

"The evidence that we have presented in the DTC's proceeding clearly demonstrates that Verizon provides excellent service quality throughout the region," Santoro wrote in an email to the Bulletin.

Regarding the recent outages in Shutesbury he said, "while we strive to restore service as quickly as possible for our customers, we regret that in this case, having performed several tests and dispatched technicians on several occasions, this was a particularly difficult problem to diagnose and resolve. We have restored customer service and apologize for the experience."

When Santoro was asked to specify what the problem had been and what the company was doing to fix it, his response was brief, repeating that diagnostic steps were taken.

Meanwhile, Shutesbury residents interviewed say that while their telephone and Internet service has been restored since the outages at the beginning of the month, they have not received an explanation from Verizon.

"We haven't heard anything from Verizon, no response," said resident Jody Brush, who reported losing service from July 8 to 12. During that time her 8-year-old daughter, Noelle, fell and broke her wrist. Brush said she was unable to call the pediatrician's office before taking her child to the hospital.

Then, she said, her family lost phone service a second time on July 16. "Our telephone service was restored on Monday and four days later there was a thunderstorm and we lost service again from 5 p.m. to 2 or 3 the next afternoon."

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