Friday July 11, 2003

Sandy Creek's Nightmare: Where Most Phone Calls Are Long Distance

A simple phone call from Sandy Creek will almost always be long distance. Frontier says it's one of the most restrictive local calling areas in the region.

    Suppose you lived in an area extending approximately 12 miles north to south and 15 miles east to west. Now imagine that you need to make a telephone call that is in an area beyond a six-mile radius within this area. Now imagine your dismay when your telephone carrier tells you that all such calls are long distance!

    This is the state of affairs in the town of Sandy Creek where Frontier's toll-free service extends only to Mannsville in the north and Pulaski in the south. According to Frontier's "Products and Services Pages," Sandy Creek has the most restrictive local calling area of the eight that Frontier handles. Five exchanges have toll-free dialing to nearby communities as well as Watertown. Pulaski and Williamstown residents may call both Syracuse and Watertown toll-free.

    Sandy Creek area residents, businesspersons and public officials are unhappy with the current state of affairs. Shiree Goins, for example, is one of Frontier's dissatisfied customers. She complained that she was forced to pay tolls when she had to call Syracuse or Watertown. Goins, who lives one mile from the Lacona village line, said her vet was in Adams, a few miles from her home. All calls to Adams, just north of Mannsville, are also long distance.

    Goins said she had tried to switch to Verizon and had been turned down. She also looked into the possibility of getting a cell phone but discovered that there was no tower in the area. She would still be required to pay toll charges since most cell phone companies don't offer local service.

    Goins thinks the lack of current telephone availability in the area is detrimental to tourism and to business, both of which are crucial to the area's economic well-being.

    Bob Myers, proprietor of The Circuit's Edge in Sandy Creek, has his own story. His company provides local dial-up computer service. Although demand for the service has increased many fold, the telephone company has done nothing to keep up with the need for improved technology. According to Myers, the telephone companies are required by law to provide 9.6K bytes although today's computers are built to handle well over 50 K. He blames disconnects and slow speed on the laxity of Frontier.

    Myers has filed several complaints with the Public Service Commission but has gotten nowhere. In fact, he said, recently his telephone bill was increased $300 to recover costs of the Universal Service Fund, a federal program for interstate calls. Myers thinks he is being unfairly targeted since his company deals with local calls only. He says that when he called Frontier to complain, he was told, in effect, "Too bad." When he contacted the PSC to complain, his lines mysteriously became "noisy," as if he were being punished for speaking out. Myers said he was involved in a vicious circle: if he complains, the PSC tells Frontier to fix the problem, yet nothing gets done. "It's like having judge and jury be the same person," he said.

    Other Sandy Creek residents have concerns with Frontier. Steve Nemier, mayor of Sandy Creek, is pessimistic about improved service, although he admitted the village would be interested. He estimated the population of Sandy Creek was 1,100 and said many of them had switched to cell phones rather than deal with Frontier.

    Jill Mattison, clerk for the villages of Sandy Creek and Lacona, said her office had two phone lines. She managed to keep the phone bill down by using many 800 numbers and e-mail. On the other hand, she continued, "It's worse for residents. We've been trying to get improved service to Syracuse. A survey was done a few years ago and it was voted down by the highest majority of any survey. Perhaps if it had offered access to Watertown it might have gone through."

    J. Stucky, a village of Lacona resident, agrees: "We do have a very limited toll free area. I would rather have Watertown [as] a toll free call. I have friends there and in Henderson and a daughter in Lorraine and it is all long distance!"

    Margaret Kastler, town of Sandy Creek supervisor, is also unhappy with Frontier's telephone services. She said her office had a lot of phones and "anytime we call out of Sandy Creek it is long distance." She emphasized that she was not talking about mechanics but about price: "I do not know any other area in the state which is in this situation."

    She alluded to the survey done several years ago asking residents if they would like to have toll-free dialing to Syracuse in exchange for an increase in their bill. The referendum was soundly defeated. Kastler said that another referendum to gauge people's feelings on access to Watertown might be more successful since many locals travel to Watertown to consult doctors. In another attempt to get expanded service, the Grange held a meeting with the PSC. Kastler said the effort went "nowhere."

    She referred to the detrimental effect the phone company had on local businesses. Kastler said that a person starting up a business would find "the cost of phone service is prohibitive. They are making money off us big time," she continued. She added that Frontier's limited local dialing access made potential businesses wary of opening in Sandy Creek.

    Speaking for Frontier, Karen C. Miller, communications manager, said that Frontier was bound by strict guidelines established by the PSC for expanding telephone service. She provided a copy of the requirements, parts of which are quoted below.

    Your area's monthly service rate is based on the number of customers who can be called without a toll charge. With the expansion of local calling, the monthly service rate may increase because of the additional local calls that can be made. If one or both communities will experience a rate adjustment, the affected community must be surveyed. Approval from the majority of the customers is required before the local calling area can be expanded.

    Two way flat rate service may be offered when the average of all customers are making three calls per month to the same desired calling area. The Community Interest Factor (C.I.F.) must be greater than 3.0 and at least 50 percent of the customers are making at least one call per month to the same desired calling area.

    Miller said the Frontier monitors traffic between exchanges on a regular basis but, she added, it was the customers' responsibility to "get the ball rolling" on expanded service. Additional exchanges might mean rate increases, said Miller. Should that potential situation occur, customers would have to vote on the proposal. "We facilitate the process," she said.