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Paul deLespinasse: Phoning the phone company when the phone won't work

Jun 17, 2023

This is considered the age of easy communication, and in many respects it is.

When my father was working temporarily in Maine in 1952, it cost $1 a minute (in 1952 dollars, or about $11.54 in today's dollars) to phone him from Oregon. Obviously, we didn't do it very much.

In 2023, on the other hand, long-distance phone calls are ultra cheap, and we can Zoom-chat with people anywhere on the planet for free.

You'd think it would be easy to phone the phone company. But I recently spent several frustrating hours trying to communicate with our phone company, CenturyLink, after our landline telephone and connected DSL internet went dead.

I should not have been surprised, given what I said in my 1981 college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective":

"Like electronic computers, (large) organizations can only 'do' those things they are organized or 'programmed' to do. While an old organization can be taught new tricks, this takes considerable time. Organizations told to do something they are not prepared to do will react with great confusion. Responsibilities have not been allocated, procedures have not been established, the organizational rules and roles are not pertinent…"

These words provide a neat explanation of my problems in communicating with our phone company. The company was not organized to cope with our particular problem.

When I used my cellphone to call the CenturyLink sevice line, its automated checkers solemnly informed me that there were no outages.

The computerized checkers then ran me through an endless list of menus and questions which assumed that something had gone wrong inside our house. I was offered no opportunity to speak to a human being who could sort things out.

Since our neighbor across the street had also lost phone and internet service, the problem was obviously not in our houses but somewhere upstream.

I couldn't just drive to a CenturyLink office and complain in person since this company has no office in our town.

Using an online chat page through my cellphone, I finally got a service call scheduled for the next day, "sometime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m." It was heartwarming that they could be so precise about when to expect them!

It turned out that gas company workers had broken a nearby underground telephone cable and immediately notified CenturyLink. The whole time the company's computers were telling us there were no problems, somebody at the company knew there was a problem, what it was and where it was.

But just because someone in a large organization knows something does not mean that other employees, or computers, know. They have to be told or programmed, and in this case they were not.

Had I known that the company was aware of the problem I wouldn't have wasted so much time trying to get through. But nobody had bothered to update the spiel in its automated system.

It also turned out that the repair crew was not told about the problem until the next day.

Apparently the automatic line checkers couldn't find the problem because the line through which they tried to check things had been severed. They therefore assumed that the trouble lay inside our house and tailored my options accordingly but inappropriately.

The technicians who finally came out to fix the break had been trained to do this kind of thing. They therefore did an excellent job of matching up the dozens of wires in the severed underground cable.

This phone company should offer easier access to a human being when its customers have problems for which its automated systems are inadequate.

It should be easy to phone the phone company.

Paul F. deLespinasse is a retired professor of political science and computer science at Adrian College. He can be reached at [email protected].