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Pac Bell ISDN service in question

After giving Pacific Bell the green light to boost ISDN rates, California utility officials call a hearing regarding the service's quality.

    After giving Pacific Bell the green light to boost ISDN rates by up to 30 percent, California utility officials are planning to take another hard look at the quality of the telco's high-speed Net access service.

    The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has called a February 3 hearing to determine whether Pac Bell is meeting the clear service guidelines it set in March as a condition for allowing the much-contested fee hike. The CPUC could suspend collection of the new rate if Pac Bell is out of compliance.

    Pac Bell's request for a rate increase was disputed for more than year by a consortium led by Intel and Compaq, which charged that the local carrier shouldn't be allowed to charge more because it already took too long to install and repair its ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) service. Despite the protest, this spring Pac Bell was permitted to increase home ISDN rates by $5 to $29.50, and to raise business rates by $7.50 to $33.55.

    However, the CPUC said it would impose penalties if Pac Bell didn't meet minimum service guidelines. For example, each time the phone carrier misses an ISDN installation appointment, the company must credit the customer $25. In addition, the company must reduce its installation charge by 10 percent for each day after 10 business days it fails to install the service and must waive the charge entirely if it is not installed within 15 business days.

    The CPUC also stated that "if more than 10 percent [of Pac Bell's customers] characterize any aspect of ISDN service as 'inadequate' or 'poor,' we will consider whether to take further steps as necessary."

    The hearing will address the Utility Consumers' Action Network's (UCAN) October complaint that Pac Bell's ISDN service fell below that benchmark between May and June of this year.

    According to a Pac Bell survey, during that period, 20 percent of its ISDN customers rated the quality of repair services as "poor." In addition, the quality of installation services was deemed "poor" by 10 percent of respondents.

    "These results are unacceptable," states UCAN's complaint. "Pacific Bell repeatedly promised the Commission that if it received this rate increase, it would improve its service quality and customer service. Pacific has broken that promise, and has violated the direct order of the Commission."

    But Pac Bell argues that more current survey results show an increase in customer satisfaction.

    "The percentage of customers rating overall provisioning as 'poor' or 'terrible' has steadily decreased. In November that combined percentage was only 10 percent," the phone carrier stated in a reply motion filed with the CPUC.

    "As to UCAN's claims that our ISDN service is deteriorating, we do not believe its arguments are accurate or warranted," the company added. "All of the available data that we have suggests that customers are becoming more satisfied with our service."

    Still, according to Pac Bell's November study, 16 percent of residential ISDN customers rated provisioning as "poor" or "terrible," while 11 percent gave the same rating for maintenance.