August 20, 2011

Bringing them to their Knees: Verizon’s “Can’t Do” Spirit

light’n’lively story in today’s New York Times describes the impact of Verizon Wireless’s installation of temporary “cell on wheels” towers on Martha’s Vineyard’s vacationers and locals. Wireless users’ cell phones start ringing when President Obama arrives on the island, known for its remoteness and beauty. These folks ordinarily forego cell coverage on The Vineyard. Most vacationers prefer life without cell interruptions but, as Times reporter Abby Goodnough notes, understand the administration’s need to link to the wider world.

Reading the story stirred up two sets of memories for me, one relatively recent, the other less so. Here forthwith:


I spent an exasperating week in July battling Verizon’s land line service to have DSL and telephone restored here in Brookline. In normal times, our internet service is painfully slow. To give you an idea, imagine having your bandwidth eaten for six to eight hours to upload a seven-minute radio piece.  (For reasons too complicated for even a modestly intelligent person to understand, we aren’t able to get cable.) In addition, the quality of our everyday telephone land line is compromised by a persistent, staticky crackle.  This is on a good day, mind you. In July, the crackle got so bad that conversations were almost impossible, plus the line would frequently go dead, dropping calls mid-conversation.  I put in a request to Verizon for repair.

A week and four separate visits from Verizon land line workers later, I was at my wits’ end. Repairmen would show up, check the antediluvian pole and line behind our garage on our neighbor’s property, tell me they had tapped us into a new “pair” of lines coming and going from the central switching station, and then leave. And still we’d have no phone service.

By the time the last worker arrived, I had lost faith and patience.  I was supposed to have had phone service, and he was supposed to be visiting to improve the DSL coverage. Given that the phone still wasn’t working, I’d called Verizon in advance of his visit to make sure the work order reflected the need to restore the line — not just to install a digital splitter for the DSL.  It took me over an hour to convince several different Verizon reps in call centers around the world to change the work order. Despite my attempts to give a heads up, this fourth worker arrived without a clue that he’d need to fix the actual phone line.  As I’d suspected, he balked at my request to bring back phone service, because his work order only told him to install the DSL splitter.  When we were done “discussing” the options, he agreed to take care of both issues.  He diagnosed the same problem with the land line as previous repairmen and  generated the same solution. He explained that one of the emails alerting the switching station to activate the new pair had gotten dropped earlier in the week, hence the lack of phone. All would now be well, he assured me. Either you fix it this time, I told the guy, or I’m canceling my service plan with Verizon. He told me he needed to leave the house to find a new pair and hook us up.  We agreed he would leave his laptop in my house as surety until the service was completely restored. He came back a good while later to let me know that he’d finished his job and would be leaving.  Nope, said I, I’m not giving you back your laptop until the phone works.

This guy was as fed up with me as I was with him. He told me that by contract he had to leave my property as soon as he notified the central office to activate the new pair.  I told him that by contract his company owed me phone service and that once the phone and internet were running, he could have his laptop back.  (My kids found this hilarious. I’d “Mommed” the poor guy.)  “I want to speak with your supervisor,” I told the repairman. Like those who’d come before, he told me this wasn’t possible. I told him I didn’t care. It was take no prisoners time.

When this able worker realized that I really wasn’t going to let him have his laptop back until the phone worked, he went into the basement to talk with his supervisor in private. He returned several minutes later and handed me his cell phone. The supervisor — a guy in charge of land line coverage for my town — explained company policy.  I asked him how the policy made any sense, given that Verizon was hemorrhaging cash by sending four separate workers to fix a straightforward problem. How could this be cost-efficient, I wondered? If the phone didn’t work after the fourth guy had left, Verizon would have to send a fifth worker to start all over again. The supervisor finally agreed to leave his worker in place until the job was done.  But the worker couldn’t raise anyone in the central office. So he took off for an hour of lunch. When he returned and restored my land line and internet service to its crackly, slow, pre-repair state, he was free to leave. With his laptop. And I was grateful.

Talking with these four separate workers, I learned that each was frustrated with management, with repair policies, with the company in general. Each spoke of the company’s lack of commitment to land line service. Each told me that the company didn’t care if it lost land line customers to other service providers, that the company wanted to be left to its cellular business. Wireless workers aren’t unionized, they told me. Land line workers are. They complained about gigantic corporate earnings, insistence that there be employee give backs in upcoming contract negotiations (including health care coverage), and predicted they’d be out on strike come the first week of August.

The strike came to pass, with lowly workers attempting to bring Verizon management to its knees. You can read/watch a relatively pro-management piece as well as a relatively pro-labor piece explaining some of the bigger issues.  Where do I fall on this strike? I believe the workers when they say that the company is trying to grind them out of unionized existence. I also think they do a terrible , inefficient job installing and maintaining land lines.

What recourse did I have to register my dissatisfaction?  I could have cancelled our service, but all of my business cards and stationery list my email  I know there are ways out of this, but they are complicated and even expensive for me.  Since I’d given the worker back his laptop I only had one other option. I am, in my way, part of “management.” I sold my stock in Verizon. I had quite a bit. Even if in the end I lose money because of my trade, I can fan the flames of my righteous indignation by refusing to profit from management’s awful motives and even awfuller policies. And I remove my capital from a pot that could potentially fund workers’ pensions and health insurance coverage. I don’t wanna profit from having a dog in this particular fight.

Did I bring them to their knees, or what?


A few summers ago, I worked as a reporter for National Public Radio’s Cape and Island’s affiliate. One of the stories I was researching but didn’t get to produce featured the critical role internet connections play in year-round sustainability of families and businesses on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. I interviewed impassioned residents on the Outer Cape who were frustrated by their inability to get their businesses running because of lack of internet. Also spoke with young people who’d grown up on Cape but were moving away because they couldn’t support themselves. At present, families and young people are leaving the Cape in droves. Housing costs, lack of year-round employment, and iffy public transport make Cape Cod an undesirable place to put down permanent roots for all save the independently wealthy.

Last year, a hard-working non-profit organization, Open Cape, managed to midwife a deal harnessing federal money, local grants, and up-front investment from service provider RCN to provide increased internet coverage throughout Cape Cod.  You can read about the partnership, which is mandated to have finished its work by 2013, here.  The hope is that entrepreneurs and small business people who could live and work anywhere will choose to settle on Cape Cod for its spectacular beauty and quality of life IF they can get the first-rate internet access they’d expect on the mainland. [N.B.: See above for a sense of what that might actually look like.] With this class of people will come jobs, cash flow, and opportunity, enabling a wider spectrum of people to live year-round on the Cape. The best of capitalism and government intervention in tandem. At least in theory.


When I think about Verizon’s ability to throw up a coupla portable cell towers to provide coverage for President Obama — just like that! — I am struck by the power of independent corporations in this country. Their ability to choose “can do” is often inspirationally breath-taking (and phone-ringing). And their decisions to operate in “can’t do” mode is proportionately nauseating. Who benefits when the terms of engagement insist on bringing at least one party (repair guys? workers? corporations? customers?)  to its knees?