THE KGB HAD NOTHING ON VERIZON
by Bill Weinberg, The Villager
What really fills me with despair is that amid it all—the rise of an open fascist at the forefront of the Republican party, the relentless reign of deadly police terror, the impending collapse of the global biosphere—even the most quotidian aspects of our lives are being colonized by sinister corporate bureaucracies that eat up our time and energy... making it impossible for us to fight back against all that other stuff.
As heretical as it is, I have to confess that I am nostalgic not only for the pre-digital world, but also for the world before the Ma Bell break-up. I know this was supposedly a blow to the corporate leviathan, but service interruptions in the monopolistic era were virtually unheard-of. Today they are more or less constant.
Is this due the chaos of competing companies and technologies, as opposed to the efficiency of a centralized monolith? Or is it merely a function of digitization, and the decision to let the old copper wires deteriorate—those wires on which (as we shall see) I unwillingly depend on?
In any event, Verizon (like its competitors) has perfect impunity to make my life hell—and demand that I pay them to do so.
For the past decade that I have been on DSL with Verizon (FIOS is not available in my building), I have never had reliable service. My Internet connection goes down several times a year, and my dial-tone also goes dead at intervals of a year or two—leaving me completely incommunicado. I should state here that I refuse to get a cellular phone. My life has already been utterly assimilated by digital technology, and I draw the line at being unfree of it even in the street, and having Big Brother track my every move.
And during the Hurricane Sandy blackout, my phone never went out—as people were stumbling around my neighborhood like zombies, looking desperately for a place to charge their cellulars. I decided then that copper wires were preferable to all the mobile gee-whizzery. Sandy itself took a toll on those wires, however—which may have something to do with my deteriorated service since then.
Verizon is (for the moment) required by law to provide me with a reliable land-line. But it seems that nothing will compel them to actually meet this responsibility.
It was way back in early August that my dial-tone and Internet connection went dead yet again. I biked around to every Verizon store in Manhattan south of 59th Street trying to get some attention to the problem—to no avail. They all said it wasn't their responsibility, and that I should call the company—heedless to the reality that I had no means of doing so. Other than going to a pay phone—those pay phones which notoriously do not function, and which the city is now phasing out.
Finally, the guy at one store told me they could help at a Verizon location in downtown Brooklyn. So (now three days into the ordeal), I biked over the Manhattan Bridge, found the place, and passed through the door with desperate hope. It turns out what was meant by "helping" was providing me a courtesy telephone I could use to call the company. So I waited through 45 minutes of choice menus and muzak before I finally reached someone who told me a repairman would be sent out—in three days.
So in this supposedly hyper-connected age, in which nobody can so much as eat lunch without sharing the experience on Facebook and Twitter, Verizon thinks it is acceptable to leave me with no connectivity whatsoever for three days. When I had already been without connectivity for three days—my e-mail piling up unanswered, my paying assignments languishing, my entire life on hold.
As a writer I depend on connectivity for my living. Not only is the Internet the only way to turn in a story today, but writers (especially bloggers who maintain their own websites, as I also do) are expected to promote their own work through social media. So Verizon was interfering with my income. Yet they expect me to pay my bill on time every month, and threaten to cut me off if I don't. Funny how that works.
Before it was all over, I had lost nearly a week of work—which, thanks to the necessity of clearing backlog after such interruptions, has a cascading effect that ultimately means several more days of lost work.
But this nightmare was just beginning.
As stated, this was far from the first time I'd been left utterly in the lurch by Verizon—without even a dial-tone. I'd always resisted the urge to dump them for fear of the chaos it would cause. But now I was at my wit's end. I had for years been receiving (unsolicited) pitches in the mail from Time-Warner, promising a "hassle-free" switch to cable. Like a fool, I decided to finally take them up on it. Nothing could be worse than Verizon, I thought.
Both on the phone and in the Time-Warner store (just a block from my apartment, whetting my misplaced optimism), they assured me that installation would be no problem. I warned them that it was an old building, and I was dubious that a cable hook-up would be that simple. They told me not to worry.
The old bait-and-switch. When the Time-Warner technician arrived, I was informed the installation would take five hours and entail not only upsetting the intricate clutter of books and papers in my apartment—but also drilling through an exterior wall. In this building, already well over a century old and possibly structurally compromised, this struck me as ill-advised. I wasn't even sure I had the legal right to do it without the landlord's permission.
And the cable modem was this ghastly huge apparatus that looked like a multi-megaton nuclear warhead. I was not going to have it eating up space in my small apartment. Finally, the cable line, I was informed, would go out in the event of a blackout. Even if I was willing to compromise on this, the exterior-wall drilling was a deal-breaker.
So I cancelled with Time-Warner—and, in utter frustration, desperation and humiliation, went back to Verizon and told them to reactivate my account. But no. I would have to start a new account—with a new phone number. I was told that the old number would be restored in a few days—after it had been "ported" back over from Time-Warner. That was August 30.
What happened in the "few days" is that the temporary number stopped working—but the old number was not restored! When people called it, they got a recording saying it had been disconnected. For the next two weeks, I could receive no incoming calls. I could make outgoing, and I had my net connection—but nobody could reach me by phone. It was actually a relief to be free of the damn thing ringing while I'm trying to work, but obviously I needed to correct this. And that turned into nearly full-time job.
Every day, I made incessant calls to Verizon. I spent countless hours on hold. I had every note of the repetitive muzak soundtrack memorized—I even heard it in my dreams, the sterile tones mocking me in my sleep. (Music intended to be soothing having exactly the opposite effect.) I was shunted around from one department to another—each time I was transferred, having to listen to the evil muzak and risk being disconnected (as happened several times).
And each time I was told me different story. Everything was on track, just wait and do nothing, the number would be reactivated tomorrow. (Of course "tomorrow," nothing would happen.) Time-Warner hadn't turned the number over, I had to take it up with them. (I went to the Time-Warner store, and they insisted the number had been "ported" back to Verizon and was out of their hands.) The reactivation of the old number had to be "verified" by a third party. (Once I was patched through to some functionary claiming to be from an outside verification company who said he was recording my request for the old number, but this also failed to win any result.)
Adding to the sheer wackiness, once I was told that the number belonged to another address, several blocks away—even though my name was on the account. I have no explanation for this, and I hope my bills aren't going to be sent to the wrong address.
Finally, I gave up on calling Verizon. I called the state Pubic Service Commission. Amusingly, they told me they would contact Verizon's executive office and insisted I give them a telephone number so they could call me back—oblivious to the fact that the very problem I was complaining about was that I had no working telephone number.
I also called the office of my state assembly representative, Deborah Glick. To give credit where it is due, here—for the first time in all the endless calls I'd made throughout this ordeal—I immediately got through to a human being, with no waiting. And a friendly and personable human being (imagine!), who said he would try to get it straightened out.
This (at last!) was effective. Just two days after I contacted Glick and the PSC, my old number was back in working order. I even received a personal call from a woman at the Verizon executive office to assure that everything was working OK.
And this is the most maddening part. If I hadn't sicced the authorities on Verizon, they seemingly would have left me with no working number forever. Once I put the fear of God into them, they suddenly figured out what the problem was. But I never could have reached the executive office without appealing to the authorities. Verizon has built a system that keeps consumers waiting on hold to speak to hired low-level flack-catchers in Third World countries. Asking to speak to a supervisor is useless—you just get put on hold interminably, and disconnected. A part of the job of the flack-catchers is to absorb the ire of frustrated consumers. I admit I have thusly abused them, maddened by their inability to help, and their meaningless, robotic issuance of such phrases as "I'm terribly sorry, sir." (Apologies become an insult when you've literally been hearing them for years.)
And the story was still not over. Even since my working number was restored, there have been two reprises of angst. First, the very day after the number was reactivated, my Internet connection went out for several hours—just to let me know that everything was back to "normal," in the full pathological sense of the word.
And then, just this morning (Sept. 21), I was woken from a sound sleep by a robo-call from Time-Warner saying a technician was on his way over to install the cable connection—this after Time-Warner had assured me that I was out of their system, and fairly chased me out of their store! (The technician never showed up, and I have no idea if this simply a Time-Warner computer error.)
So now, I have lost nearly two months of work. I am stuck with a company that has never provided reliable service, and switching has proven impossible. And I am in deadly fear that my service will be interrupted yet again if I fail to pay my bill because it never arrives—being sent to a different address several blocks away.
This is what I call totalitarian capitalism. In the perversely ironic name of freedom of choice and hyper-connectivity, we are being enclosed in a system of totalizing surveillance—that fails to even deliver the most elementary right to communicate and access information.
Verizon could have taught the KGB a few tricks.
Update: After I had filed complaints withe the state Public Service Commission (PSC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the city Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DOITT), Verizon finally offered to give me a considerable discount off my bill for a year to make amends for my ordeal. We'll see if they follow through. —Bill Weinberg
A shorter version of this story appeared Oct. 16 in The Villager.
Photo: Striking Verizon workers picket outside of a Verizon Wireless store near Bloomsburg, Penn., May 2016. Credit: Paul Weaver via Flickr
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