Phone Companies - What Idiots!
2600 Magazine cover

Idiocy At The Telcos

Original title: "Phone Companies - What Idiots"

by The Cheshire Catalyst

This article was published in the Spring 2002
issue of 2600 magazine, Vol 19 Issue 1.

The people running telephone companies (called Telco's) are such idiots. Sorry, I really should explain which idiots I'm talking about, since there are so many entities known as "phone companies" out there these days. In this diatribe I'm referring to the LECs, or Local Exchange Carriers - those phone companies that handle "the last mile" from the Telco's central office to your home. LEC's are broken up into ILEC's and CLEC's (Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers and Competitive Local Exchange Carriers). The "Incumbents" are the guys that were around since before the breakup of AT&T, while the "Competatives" are the new guys on the block who are suppossed to help keep the old guys "honest", and force them to keep rates competative. The guys that carry your conversations as a Long Distance call are IXC's (IntereXchange Carriers).

As an old "phone phreak", it's almost embarrassing that I should have to admit that my "day job" is that of a Directory Assistance (DA) operator for a major Long Distance Carrier (IXC). It doesn't matter which one, because I don't really work for them anyway. In these modern days of deregulation, I work for a third-party outfit that is hired to provide the DA service cheaper than they can do the job in-house. That's because I live in one of the numerous "Right-To-Work" states in the nation's sun-belt, and get paid pittance.

One of the major embarrassments of my job happens when someone calls for the local phone company - not just in a small town, but even in major cities! The phone company never puts itself in the directory so it can be found! And of course, I only handle White Pages. If the caller doesn't know the name of the Telco, I'm not allowed (by FCC tarriff, I'm told) to provide a "Yellow Pages" search. I keep threatening to take some vacation time to visit the reading room of the FCC in Washington some time and look this stuff up, but I really can't afford the trip (see comment on "Right To Work State" above).

Since I cover a number of states in my job, I get to look at the listings of a number of major LEC's. Verizon will have "Verizon Wireless" listings for every hamlet and burg in the nation - but try to find a number for residential land-line service that an out of state caller can ring up to see about the problem with Aunt Minnie's account back home, and I'm up against the tarrif asking "Do you know the name of the Phone Company in that area?". Even when I break down and suggest that Verizon is the primary local carrier in Boston, or Ameritech in Chicago (hoping that this isn't one of the calls being "monitored for Quality Assurance") - just what number am I suppossed to supply? Deregulation began in 1986 with the Modified Final Judgement. Here I am in the next century wondering what I'm suppossed to tell a customer whose on their third call to Directory Assistance looking to get a phone account squared away!

People call in with the most compelling stories about how their elderly aunt back home in Chicago or Boston can't deal with their phone company any more, and they need to call and take care of the charges. Or somebody in the Rust Belt up north is trying to reach the telco of their winter home in the South to deal with a problem on their bill. It isn't that I've got the time to stop and listen to their stories, it's that I can't shut them up while trying to search the many recurrences of the Directory Sales Office numbers whele trying to find a listing for an out of state caller to call.

The trick here is that the phone companies have all their information about contacting them packed in the front pages of their local telephone directories. In over 15 years of deregulation, it hasn't occurred to most of them to advertise in their own yellow pages under "Telephone Companies", or to put in as big a listing in the White Pages as their Electric Company utility brethren - the ones they keep passing in the halls of the Public Service Commission offices, but never need to talk to. Keep in mind that the telephone book publishing arm of those same phone companies have been "spun-off", so the right hand really doesn't know what the left hand is doing - because it isn't it's own left hand any more!

The other problem is, when callers call out of state DA at NPA-555-1212 (NPA is "Numbering Plan Area", the telco's in-house term for "Area Codes"), the White Pages listings are never clear as to where an out-of-state caller should call about discussing a bill. Actually, I should compliment BellSouth here. They actually do have a specific number for out-of-state callers to dial. Let me tell you why.

The number in most BellSouth States to reach the Telco for residential customers is 780-2355 (780-BELL). It's always a local number, wherever you call from, and if you live in an area that has 10-digit dialling, you have to use your area code in front of that number to get there. The number is never good from out of state, but most of my "collegues" in the Call Center don't know this, and give it out - causing much frustration when the caller calls back to complain, and get a good number. It's a toll free number, and clearly marked "out of state", but most callers don't want the "Toll Free Number Runaround", and want a "direct number", then get the recording that the number in the 780 exchange is not valid.

So how does a Telco go about changing the listings in the directory database that I (and my 600 friends in my call center) use every day? Do what we tell people who call and wonder why their number isn't in our directory: "Call your Local Phone Company, and make sure they have your listing correct. Our information is updated from the information that they provide to us".

So there it is. Get with it, you Telcos! Get your act together, and pretend you're "just another American company". Even you need to check your company's telephone book listings once in a while. Make sure your customers can find you, whether they're in town, or across the country and have to call Directory Assistance - just like every other company has to. Otherwise, your customers will go to that CLEC across town. Usually, they can be found in the Phone Book!

Richard Cheshire
The Cheshire Catalyst


The week this issue of 2600 Magazine hit my PO Box, Pacific Bell started showing up in my directory. That summer, H2K2, the HOPE (Hackers On Planet Earth) Conference was held, and this article was the basis of my presentation. Two weeks later (about the time it takes for local change in a listing to reach the National Book where I and my 600 "best friends" lived, Verizon was in my directory.

The best part, though, was a month or two after the conference when I got a call asking for a Police Station in a very small town. I was getting ready to give my usual "Not Found, and would you like the number for the local Sherrif's Department?" line - when up popped the number for the County Sherrif under the municipal listings. I can only imagine that this tip made it into a Police Magazine, and had been used in this town at least.

Richard Cheshire is the pseudonym of "The Cheshire Catalyst", an internationally known phone phreak of the 1980's who published the TAP newsletter for phone phreaks and computer crackers during that era. He is currently looking for a Research Grant to visit the FCC Reading Room.

This doument is: http://CheshireCatalyst.Com/idiots.html
Last updated: 2002-02-07 01:42:23 UTC
Addendum added 2007-09-06

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