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That old Ben Franklin saying nothing is certain except death and taxes didn't anticipate the impact of the telephone. I know what's inevitable, and it's "Please continue to hold, your business is important to us."

I've been reminded of this pretty much daily since news broke that complaints to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission about Telus have skyrocketed this year.

Last summer, I only thought about Telus on weekends, when I arrived at my Saturna Island cottage to a dead phone and wondered how much longer it could possibly be before Telus would reconnect it.

I'd been asking them to repair the severed line for about six months, and had made perhaps 50 calls to that end, before their inaction really began to annoy me. I was relatively patient because, after all, I go to Saturna to get away from the phone.

Life's little complications

It's also true that my phone situation was more complicated than most.

Last winter, my 89-year-old father had taken his incipient decrepitude down the hill from the cottage we shared to a permanent home with more urban conveniences such as electricity and neighbours. He'd taken his phone number with him, and it was a month or three before I ordered a new one for the place.

In the meantime, a local contractor had been hired to do some work up at the TV tower. He took down a secondary tower, and a building, and a hydro pole that carried a portion of our cottage's phone line. Try to follow here: The line crossed Crown land that had been leased in part to CanWest Global, for its Victoria TV station. The property was being transferred to the new Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, and the parks service had asked CanWest Global to remove its obsolete facilities.

Oh, who to blame!

I explained all this to Telus, and spoke to folks from the federal government, who were gracious and helpful and prompt in granting permission for my phone line to remain in the park. I spoke to a gentleman from CanWest, who accepted a measure of responsibility.

People at Telus said they'd fix it. Or they had to talk to Parks Canada, or CanWest. Or they'd get back to me, which they almost never did.

When Telus was good

It wasn't always like this. Telus, in its previous incarnation as BC Tel, has been uncommonly good to Islanders. When my cousin first built a place at the site of our house in the early 1970s, BC Tel brought an underground phone line down from the TV tower, most of a kilometre up the shoulder of Mount Warburton Pike.

They'd done the same thing for my aunt and uncle on their water-access farm. On that occasion, the cable-laying equipment came all the way from Prince George, and was barged onto the island, to install a line to the summer cottages down at the beach.

I figured that was the price that BC Tel paid for being a regulated monopoly. Like the railways, they got a lot of turf but they had a duty to build some tracks.

A few years back, after a contractor drove a fence post our fence post through the phone line not far from our house, Telus fixed it for free. Years before that, when my family on the farm down the hill discovered they were paying small a fee to BC Tel for providing and maintaining the line that the family itself had strung from tree to tree, BC Tel was good about correcting the billing problem. They even came and tightened up the line, which was fine until the wind blew and the trees swayed and the line snapped like an old shoelace.

Sometimes, when you live on a farm, you develop the special skills required to improvise your own phone line.

For the first half of the last century, Saturna got by with hardly any phones. For much of the second half, the folks at Breezy Bay and the Campbell farm relied mainly on the South Saturna Telephone Exchange, which was linked to and partly maintained by BC Tel, although people cobbled much of it together themselves. There were about 15 phones on a battery-powered "ground return" system.

Such systems were common in parts of rural B.C. where hydro lines were often few and far between. The phone lines were basically 12-gaugue fence-wire, and current flowed through the ground to complete the necessary circuit. Our cottage site on Mt. Warburton Pike was part of the system for many years, and you can still find pieces of the wire looping down the bluff.

The slaughterhouse, the sheep shed and the Mordans' cottage are still connected to the farmhouse by this old system. Two short rings and a long one might still get you Aunt Lorraine, who'll tell you when to come in for dinner. When a system like that needs fixing, it's in your own hands.

Brave new phone company

I had the more complex challenge of dealing with a company under siege, mostly from itself.

Maybe you can relate. You know a building contractor who used to find Telus installers prompt. Or you've been frustrated by the long wait to obtain their high-speed internet service. Or you've depended on their unreliable e-mail in the middle of your music festival. Or you've received one of their new, improved phone books with only half the city's numbers. Or you've mistakenly tried to pay a phone bill with cash at one of their phone marts, where cash is no longer acceptable currency for such things. Perhaps you've just had to call Telus for some reason; if so, you would have at least an inkling of how bad things were getting.

I've experienced pretty much all of the above, in one way or another.

Telus, you see, has been adapting to a changing marketplace less regulation, wireless technology, the internet. Now, I believe big companies occasionally need to restructure. They become moribund, and a serious shakeup is the only effective cure. I also believe Telus, like most companies of its ilk, uses the "imperatives" of a changing marketplace to avoid the obligations imposed by regulatory agencies so it can bleed customers for every platelet redeemable at the Toronto Stock Exchange. This is how the marketplace takes care of us. And it's especially true for Telus in the area where it still has a functional monopoly providing basic land lines.

You might think that competition would explain why Telus's stock price and credit rating were hammered a few years back. And that's sort of true. But it was only the "competition" of communications industry executives, liquored up with talk of synergy and convergence, lumbering to acquire new markets and technology ahead of their corporate rivals.

We all know how that spree ended. For Telus, here's how it began.

Cutting support, suing the union

In the summer of 2000, new president and CEO Darren Entwistle arrived from England, and promptly bought the Clearnet cellular phone franchise for $6.6 billion in cash, stock and assumed debt. The stock market then collapsed, and not long afterward all of Telus was worth less than that. At the end of September, Telus's "market capitalization" was just $7.8 billion, and mobile phones provide only a third of its revenue.

So Telus slashed its unionized staff of 17,500 by a third, mostly through voluntary buyouts, an approach that tends to rid you of your most able employees. The consequence has been a collapse in service. In the first nine months of 2003, there were 2,010 service complaints to the CRTC, nearly 10 times the number logged in the same period the previous year.

Telus has also been complaining in B.C. Supreme Court. Last March, Telus sued the Telecommunications Workers' Union. "The union has provided consumers with misleading information in terms of the ability of Telus to provide service to our customers," Telus vice-president Jim Peters alleged at the time. The suit also claims the union is demoralizing Telus employees. Hmmm.

No doubt it rankles management that the union has encouraged customers to complain to the CRTC, which has the power to levy fines and adjust rates if Telus doesn't provide certain specified levels of service.

I tried to treat the beleaguered Telus employees with respect as I lobbied them to return my phone service, or to stop billing me for a dead line, or to give their employees voice mail so I could leave a message asking them to please, please call me back.

On the ferry one brisk day last spring, I met the Telus employee who does much of the work on Saturna. "Three years ago, we'd have just fixed it," he said, lamenting the company's change in attitude.

I also appreciate that while Telus has not always been "in service" of late, some of the money I pay the company provides its employees with a respectable wage. Those Sprint cold-callers who'd come panhandling in my living room for long-distance business weren't being fairly compensated by their employer, and I'd often tell them so as I turned them away.

Executive customer relations

The Telus employees I dealt with were decent people, I thought, even after six months of frustration. I could sense their frustration, too. And Telus still provides rural infrastructure that other companies don't. I felt I should share in that exercise by remaining a Telus customer.

Then I met Dee Case. I think that's how her name spelled, but she wouldn't confirm that for me. Dee Case is in executive customer relations. She called me back after I phoned the CEO's office. That's the only way they'll fix the phone, my uncle said. Call the boss.

I told Ms. Case that, in fairness, she should know I sometimes write for a living. I told her I was thinking about writing about my experience with Telus. She might be quoted. She was defensive and unpleasant. The phone was soon fixed, however. Perhaps I got special treatment because I'm a journalist. Perhaps my day had come regardless.

Nevertheless, she was the first person to call me on Saturna once the line was repaired. I posed a question to Ms. Case. Someone's phone line has been severed. Telus says they'll fix it. What's the longest it's ever taken?

"It can be up to 30 years, she said, fishing. "It depends on the facilities. It's all monitored by the CRTC." It's not always easy to fix a phone line, she stammered. Some people live on farms.

Yes they do, I thought. And the Telus employee who maintains service to the homes and farms on Saturna generally visits on Tuesdays.

Then I tried to confirm her job title and name.

"I'm terminating this call because you are going to write an article about it," she declared, and so she did.

I might not have bothered to write about the whole affair, except for the officious way in which she explained that she was breaking the rules to give me a one-month credit on my account. I should feel beholden to the generosity of the great god Telus, she seemed to suggest. The credit might just cover the cost of all the long-distance calls I made trying to get said god to reach out and touch me.

Of course, those calls are usually on Sprint's accounts these days. My internet access is with Shaw.

Customer's on fire

Telus insists it's in better shape without that business. The stock is up, and so is its credit rating. Darren Entwistle's been doing well, too. In 2002, he made $1,253,000, not counting the complex share options that may well have made him that much again. I assume he'll earn even more this year, on account of the company's "recovery."

Certainly he's got his flak-catchers working overtime. One was on the radio the other day. He was asked if improved cash flow and profit came at the expense of performance. "I'd like to separate those two issues," he replied.

I wonder if Entwistle would also suggest they're separable. He does say that by the end of December customer service at the leaner Telus will be better than it was before all the complaining began. And service is at least improving. But then last December, an Entwistle speech prepared for a Calgary audience declared that Telus's "operational efficiency program" would ensure no degradation in service.

Tell that to the emergency room physician or the woman on fire who each wished their phone had been working when they really needed it. The good news, if you can call it that, is only one of them died, and she probably would have succumbed to her injuries anyway.

There is some other good news. Telus says it is now getting close to meeting the CRTC target of answering 80 per cent of its customer phone calls within 20 seconds (and clearing 90 per cent of rural service disruptions within 10 days). However, such numbers don't really tell us what kind of company Telus would be without government oversight. Perhaps we should ask why Telus is also striving hard to expand its internet-based phone service, which isn't regulated by the damnable interventionists from the wretched CRTC.

As a rural land-line Telus customer, I recognize the challenges the company faces as the sole provider of rural land lines. But I no longer have any expectations of Telus. Just as Canadian Pacific Railway once promised passenger service in perpetuity, then ditched it, I expect Telus will one day gladly rid itself of its obligation to provide rural phone service.

In the meantime, I can add dissembling executives of large corporations to the things I regard as inevitable. And weather.

At least when winter weather blows over Mt. Warburton Pike, and the trees dance in the gales of wind, and pitch-laden fir crackles in the fireplace, I can imagine a world without captains of industry and their automated telephone answering systems. I can wonder, just for a moment, if I really need a phone at all.

 

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee.