If Emerson really had said that thing about mousetraps, he would have been right: Build a better one and the world WILL beat a path to your door . . . at least once.
Even knowledgeable telecommunications attorneys are not immune from phone company traps. Neither am I, apparently.
In the course of planning a trip to Israel, I foolishly picked up the Verizon telephone and . . . cue the ominous music . . . dialed 011, then the Israeli country code (972), and the number I was calling. Five different times, over a few days, dealing with hotels and such. A total of 22 minutes.
The trip went very well, thank you for asking. I survived the major threat in the Middle East, which nowadays is the Israeli cab drivers. And returned home safe and sound to find my phone bill nestled in the mailbox.
With a line item for international calling of $112.20.
That’s $5.10 per minute! The market rate for calls to an Israeli landline is around two percent of that amount, in the neighborhood of ten cents/minute. True, I don’t have an international calling plan, so I expected to pay a premium for “casual” calling. But not 50 times the going rate.
So I called Verizon, punched my way through the lengthy voice-mail tree, keyed in my 12-digit account number, listened to hold music, and finally got a live person on the line who tried to sell me enhanced phone service, faster Internet access, and cable TV (“lots of high definition!”) before she decided my problem was outside her area of expertise and transferred me to more hold music, and finally, a snippy lady who listened to my eloquent use of “exorbitant” and “unreasonable,” then informed me that, yes, $5.10 is your basic rate without a calling plan, and that’s what you’ll have to pay, and can I help you with anything else today?
Ordinarily the next stop would be at the FCC. Back in 1934, after all, Congress charged the FCC with regulating telephone rates to and from the United States. But that was then. In 2001, deciding there is adequate competition to protect consumers from price-gouging, the FCC took its hands off the controls. A carrier can now set its own rates, so long as it posts them at one office location and on its website. After the fact, I spent ten minutes digging through Verizon’s website, clicking through endless promotions for new services (blazing Internet speeds! dramatically affordable calling plans!) to finally discover the basic rate to Israel is indeed $5.10, not including taxes and Universal Service Fees.
No doubt a more prudent consumer would have put in the ten minutes before making the calls. In fact the FCC recommends doing just that, amidst lots of other good advice on saving money. “Just picking up your phone and placing an international long distance call could be expensive,” says the FCC. No kidding. “Shop around,” says the FCC. “Avoid paying ‘basic rates’ whenever possible.” Thanks. I’ll make a note.
One question, though, FCC. You still have a requirement on the books that telephone rates be “just and reasonable.” What can these words mean, if a five-dollar rate in a ten-cent market passes the test?
And so one more irked subscriber joins the exodus from traditional long-distance service. I might sign up for VOIP, or start using a 10-10 dial-around, or buy a phone card at the corner convenience store. Verizon did nothing illegal, but they have needlessly lost a customer. Possibly they forgot they are no longer the phone company, now that we users have other options. Thanks to the hard work of knowledgeable telecommunications attorneys.