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FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT
I Just Thought I Missed Ma Bell!
Enjoy it while you can - the competitive market is coming to an end - again!

by Rita Ayers
December 12, 2007

Last week, a number of colleagues approached me and said, "My Internet was down last night! What should I do?"
 
I asked each of them for the name of their Internet Service Provider (ISP); in each case, the response was "BellSouth." As it happened, some people had actually called in and been told that there were indeed network issues at BellSouth, but they would be worked out shortly.
 
Eventually, I called in on my own behalf. I also had no Internet access, and I was also a BellSouth subscriber. I gave up after three tries because the wait time was too lengthy. I realized how very dependent on the 'net we've become at our house. My husband couldn't retrieve important business related emails, some of which contained purchase orders for work. I missed emails warning me of my son's college tuition payment due date. I couldn't even read the Partial Observer!
 
This last item put me over the top in my frenzied desire to reconnect to the world. I called the service number I had for BellSouth and, as I expected, the customer service personnel answered "AT&T." After a few attempts at going through a script designed to determine what my problem might be, the clerk gave up (far too quickly in comparison to previous such calls) and said that my modem was too old. She said a new one would be shipped out immediately for free! Wasn't I happy with that plan?
 
Absolutely. Until the modem arrived, that is.  I hooked everything back up, and still – it did not work. I turned it over to inspect it closely and saw the stamp marking the item as one which had been refurbished. My husband laughed at this. "No wonder it was free!" he said.
 
Determined, I remembered that I needed to set it up initially without the wireless router hooked in between. Since 2000, I have paid for Internet service and have been able to utilize that one service to access the web from any computer in my home with a wireless adapter. However, you have to know to first connect the modem directly to the computer. Indeed, changing my configuration to a direct connection proved to be the ticket. The new – er, old, refurbished – modem now worked and I was zooming back around getting caught up with all the important things in our lives.
 
Quintin waited patiently and then said, "Okay, get me fixed back up, please. I'm way behind!"
 
I put the wireless hub back in place. Nothing worked. Not even my own machine, which was still wired. Turned out, nothing was wrong with my old modem.
 
I'll save you all the drama. Here's what has happened. All of that "Our network is down" phraseology really meant this:
 
AT&T has taken over BellSouth (more on this later). The good people at AT&T decided they didn't like folks having all that wireless access for "free" that BellSouth had been allowing for years. They put a system in place to prevent all of us from using what we had always had – unless we were willing to pay $5 more per month. Instead of telling us that was what they were doing, either in an email to subscribers, or via snail mail, or even during those millions of customer service calls where they wound up sending out these "new" modems for free – they just let us waste a lot of time and effort trying to figure it out for ourselves.
 
I scratched my head trying to unravel the mystery for hours. And, I'm no dummy when it comes to this stuff. I've set up hundreds of wireless networks; I can't imagine the frustrations that have been endured by people with no experience at this sort of thing.
 
I gave up and went online to order the extra $5 per month subscription. Ah, but wait! You have to buy their equipment to use wireless on their network! It doesn't matter if you've already invested in other routers that work perfectly well. They'll take $100 per router, please and thank you, and if you need someone to come set it up for you, that's another $99. More than two computers? Add another $50 apiece.
 
So, to get myself back in working order would cost me $250. I didn't move, change computers, have a backhoe cut a wire or two. I just sat still, minded my own business, and watched while AT&T took the next step towards regaining its monopoly in the telephone world – and start to create one in the Internet service industry as well.
 
I almost have to laugh at myself. My brother and I have often reflected on how much we missed "Ma Bell." We grew up in a different era: telephones belonged to the phone company and the only way to have one in your home was to have it professionally installed by AT&T. We never saw a phone on a shelf at Wal-Mart, not only because there were no Wal-Marts, but because you could not own a phone anyway. Your only choices, really, were whether you wanted it wall-mounted or not, and if you wanted black or white. Everyone had rotary dial phones, but it didn't matter too much at the time because our phone numbers were only four digits long. I still remember that we were Redwood 5 – 2912, but you only had to dial the 2912, which went pretty quickly except for the 9. Even so, we heard grumblings from our parents about the lengthy dialing process, as numbers in their youth contained a mere three digits!
 
Back in those days, we couldn't envision wireless anything except radios. Some of us kids in the neighborhood had transistor radios; if you were lucky, these little devices could tune in to the local station on the weekends. If you turned it up at full volume, you still had to strain to hear even the commercials pitching the sales going on over at the five and dime over the static.
 
One thing we never had to strain to hear though, and that was the voice on the other end of a Ma Bell telephone. Not once did we have a dropped call or a bad connection on those old, ugly phones. Today, it's hard for me to sit still by a land line tethered to the wall, but I would gladly do it to be able to hear what the caller was saying. During cell phone conversations with my husband, I have to guess at virtually every word he utters. Did he say "Pick up a chicken" or "You are a chicken"?
 
At some point during the years of my childhood, the general public figured out that the phone company was a virtual monopoly and they could charge us anything they wanted for our phone calls. I can remember my extended family pulling all sorts of tricks to avoid exorbitant long distance charges. If we visited my relatives half an hour away, they would want us to call when we got home to let them know we made it safely. Anything outside of a ten-mile radius was a long distance call, and Dad had no intentions to let them know anything of the kind if he had to pay to do it. So, we called the relatives collect and asked for ourselves, knowing we wouldn't be there. They would say we weren't home, no charges could be collected, and the message would be received. I guess it's always been a game of trying to stick it to the man.
 
Actually, the most recent lawsuit to break up this monopoly was only one of many over the last century. The original American Telephone & Telegraph Company grew out of Bell Telephone Company, named for Alexander Graham Bell himself. I found an interesting, though unsubstantiated, article (read it here) about the various permutations and combinations of what has substantially remained a natural monopoly until the 1980's. After a ten year antitrust suit against AT&T, this monopoly was dismantled and 22  regional telephone companies formed in its place. Known as the "Baby Bells," one of these seven companies have more than likely served each of you over the last seven years.
 
But listen to me, and listen well. You just think you're going to maintain your Verizon account, or continue to be a Qwest customer. Look at this map, which shows the original seven Baby Bells as they were, and how the current service areas are divided now. Except for the New England states, the most heavily populated areas of our country have already been consumed – again – by AT&T. Gone are Pacific Bell, Southwestern Bell, BellSouth, and Ameritech. How long can the others hold out?
 
I wouldn't mind this if I thought it would be a return to good, quality service. Instead, I think we are going towards all that is dark and frightening about a monopoly – inferior goods and services at higher prices, and all manipulated behind our backs and without warning.
 
Anybody training a few carrier pigeons they'd like to sell?  Probably be less mess to clean...


About the Author:
Rita Ayers will report back on this topic after she gets an American to answer the phone at AT&T.


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