In the tiny hamlets dotting the hills behind the Lost Coast -- places like Ettersburg, Whitethorn and Honeydew -- phone service has been sketchy for years, but over the past two months, residents say, land line connections have broken down almost entirely. Complaints have ranged from clicks and buzzing on the line to constant busy signals, dropped calls and, in some cases, no service whatsoever. Many people say they can receive calls but cannot dial out.
Cell phones get virtually no reception in these densely forested mountains, where the closest neighbor is often a mile or more away. Without land lines these homes are essentially severed from the outside world. Dozens of these rural residents say Verizon, the only company that provides land line service in the area, has responded inadequately -- irresponsibly, even.
"This is a disaster waiting to happen," resident Mark Hilovsky told the Journal last week. "Someday, someone will need emergency services out here, and they won't be able to get them."
Everyone's phones, it seems, have been affected a bit differently -- so much so that Verizon can't pinpoint the problem. Nor do they acknowledge there even is one, beyond some "service quality issues." Aside from two brief outages -- one on Aug. 28, caused by the heavy equipment of a county work crew; the other last week due to an equipment power failure -- the company insists there has been no loss of dial tone or ability to contact 911 since the beginning of the year. Both outages, they say, were remedied in a matter of hours.
The two stories -- Verizon's and their rural customers' -- simply don't match up.
Local residents say the problem is twofold: There's the equipment, which is at least 40 years old and falling apart, and then there's Verizon, whose customer service they describe as a virtual nightmare of automated phone mazes, corporate indifference and false promises. "Verizon immediately assumes [the problem] is your phone," said Ettersburg resident Rod Silva, calling from a neighbor's house. He's slogged through the company's labyrinthine automated customer service menu numerous times and explained the situation to a variety of real people, but nothing has changed, he said.
Claudia Thompson, another Ettersburg resident, said by e-mail that she's filed one repair request after another, to no avail. In fact, her reports are often either deleted or listed as resolved on Verizon's Web site, she said, yet she remains unable to place phone calls. According to several people, residents have received automated messages from Verizon telling them that service has been restored, then offering to sell them more services.
By August, residents were fed up. "We divided up chores in this 'David versus Goliath' battle with Verizon," Thompson wrote. They filed formal complaints with the California Public Utilities Commission, left messages with County Supervisors Clif Clendenen and Jimmy Smith, as well as U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson, sent letters to the editors of local papers and were interviewed on KMUD. Some, including Silva, even tried calling Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg at his office in New York City. (His assistant eventually started blocking their calls, Silva said.)
Supervisor Jimmy Smith said he, too, has been frustrated by the company's response, citing his recent experience of being transferred from one call center to another in a two-day effort to find someone to address possible solutions. Clendenen announced at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting that he'll meet with a Verizon supervisor this week. In an e-mail to the Journal he said, "The best sense I have so far is that the rural equipment is old, and needs to be replaced or repaired."
Verizon representatives won't address the age of their equipment but say they're planning to begin a network upgrade in the first quarter of 2010. On Monday, Verizon California Vice President Margaret Serjak told the Journal that the company is aware of customer concerns. "There have been occasions when our service has fallen short," she acknowledged, "and that's absolutely unacceptable to us." But she could not explain or validate any specific complaints. "Techs have literally placed hundreds of calls in the area ..." she said. "They've been absolutely unable to duplicate [customers'] experience of dropped calls."
Though it disavows any widespread service problems, the company nonetheless promises to resolve them. "We are working very hard to address every customer's concerns," Serjak said on Monday. She also called the planned network upgrade "a reinforcement of our commitment to our customers." The following day, however, Verizon spokesman Jon Davies reiterated that there have been only two brief outages this year. "Not to disrespect the people you've spoken to," he said, "but we believe we know our network better than anyone."
Regardless, their SoHum customers remain dissatisfied and are vowing to hold Verizon accountable. "All of us at one point or another have said to these people that someone could DIE or lose their home or neighborhood to fire because we can't report it," Thompson wrote in her e-mail. "It will be their liability if something happens."
Davies invited Verizon customers still experiencing problems to call 923-3216. Of course, they might have to drive to Redway to do so.