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Pac Bell fined for withholding data

The California Public Utilities Commission fines Pacific Bell $309,000 for holding back data on "poor" ISDN product quality.

The California Public Utilities Commission said it fined Pacific Bell $309,000 for holding back data on "poor" ISDN product quality.

The commission long has been scrutinizing complaints about the ISDN service provided by Pac Bell, the Baby Bell that serves Silicon Valley and most of the rest of California. Pac Bell has maintained that its ISDN service has been improving.

The order assesses a penalty of $3,000 per day for a 103-day period from September 1 to December 12, 1997. September 1 was the deadline for Pac Bell to provide the first results of a customer satisfaction survey.

"Survey findings that the CPUC finally obtained showed a marked deterioration in ISDN service quality beginning in March 1997, right after Pacific Bell obtained a rate increase for ISDN services," the commission said. Overall quality improved only "somewhat" in the fall of that year, the commission contended in a statement.

The CPUC also ruled that Pac Bell will have to waive installation fees for ISDN service "if during any three consecutive months its customer service falls below certain minimum levels."

Pacific Bell is disappointed with the commission's decision, said Pac Bell spokesperson Paul Cohen. "The company filed about 150 reports each month with the commission, and we've acknowledged that there were administrative errors on this one report that was filed a long time ago," he said.

"Since then we've been working on our administrative processes, and we're also doing the important work of providing the best possible customer service," Cohen added.

Bob Larribeau, chairman of the California ISDN Users Group, praised today's move by the CPUC in that it sends a message to all providers.

"I think it's good," he said. "It takes a stand against the quality of ISDN service."

Larribeau especially liked the part about Pac Bell having to waive installation fees should standards fall for three consecutive months.

"It provides a continuing sanction against Pacific Bell," he said.

Even though ISDN is quickly being replaced by ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), a way to connect phones to the Net using existing copper wiring, Larribeau said the ruling will still have an impact.

Service, not technology, has been at the heart of most user complaints. And whether people are hooking up to the Net through ISDN or DSL, they will need service.

"Companies in the computer industry, like Intel and Microsoft, are continually introducing new products and innovating," he said. "Phone companies don't have the same traditions that support innovation. We think it's important that telephone companies learn how to do that and improve the processes of innovation."

News.com's Courtney Macavinta and Paul Festa contributed to this report.