Off the Hook

Connect peopleís phones? Respond to customer complaints? Abide by state rules? Please. A brave new U S West canít be bothered with trivial details.

Jeanne Barker-Nunn averts her eyes as she pushes open the door to the room on the second floor of her St. Paul home. It's messy, she apologizes, her voice sheepish--she has just finished a major project. But even with books and papers stacked and strewn on every surface, including the floor, it's a lovely room: Sunlight filters through the windows, streaming past the crisp Mission furniture and alighting on the titles that line the walls on floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The Columbia History of the World. The Chicago Manual of Style. A desk reference on geography. This office is the nucleus of the academic editing and consulting business--her baby, she calls it--Barker-Nunn launched in 1996, and has nurtured since then.

Barker-Nunn shuts the door and creeps back down the narrow staircase to the living room, settling into an armchair that seems to swallow her petite, 53-year-old frame. "It was as if someone walked into your office and stole all your business equipment," she says with a sigh. There is a weariness in her voice--which is otherwise calm, articulate, patient--as she recalls the 70 days last summer when, as she sees it, her little company was all but crushed.

She opens a file folder on her lap; it spills over with advertisements, faxes and e-mails, hastily scribbled notes. She shakes her head, and her pale corkscrew curls shift with the movement. "What a mess," she says, sorting through the papers. "It's symbolic of the whole thing."

Back on July 20, 1999, Barker-Nunn called U S West to order a new telephone. At that point she had separate lines for her home, business, and fax--and, she stresses, was happy with that arrangement. The business phone even had a distinctive ring, which alerted her, her husband, and their two sons to calls for J.B. Barker-Nunn & Associates. Still, she wanted to try U S West's Home Receptionist, a fancy piece of equipment that manages multiple phone lines at once.

The sales rep, Barker-Nunn recalls, immediately offered another pitch: Would she be interested in a connection that provided both high-speed Internet and telephone service? Web access would be fast and always on. She could be online and still get phone calls, all with one line, one bill, one account.

With the fastidiousness that had served her well in getting her Ph.D. in American studies, Barker-Nunn quizzed the rep on the details--for an hour. The digital subscriber line, or DSL, would not be complicated to install, she was told. It would simplify her life, and she would not lose any of the services she already had. Intrigued, Barker-Nunn signed up for the newfangled line. The next day, her business phone was dead.

Barker-Nunn's firm helps academics organize and write their scholarly papers. She uses her phone, fax, and e-mail to communicate with clients scattered around universities throughout the nation, and a cadre of consultants, many of whom also work out of their homes. "Having a telephone is very essential to life," she declares. "It's not a luxury anymore, especially if you're running a business. Screwing up someone's phone for 70 days is very much akin to saying you can't have heat for 70 days."

But that, she contends, is precisely what U S West did. The company goofed and disconnected her old phone line before setting up the new DSL service--which was supposed to be in place on August 3, two weeks after she placed the order. The installation actually took an additional two weeks because, Barker-Nunn was told, her order had been lost in the service department's computer.

Next, Barker-Nunn says she found herself spending nearly 12 hours configuring her system--and still calling on her own computer technician, who told her that U S West's various sets of instructions contradicted each other. When she complained about the problems, U S West representatives told her their computer records showed the snags had been fixed. Or they promised to call her back--and didn't.

The comedy of errors continued throughout the summer. Sometimes Barker-Nunn's phone went dead. Sometimes it was the fax or the e-mail. Sometimes callers to her office line were greeted by the irritating beep of the fax machine, or by a machine voice that asked them to redial. Sometimes their messages would go into a voice-mail box Barker-Nunn could not get to. There were days when she would get up in the morning, tiptoe into the office, pick up the phones to see which ones weren't working, then spend the day making calls on whichever line was still up.

She contacted vice presidents at the company. She pestered the Attorney General's Office. She called the Public Utilities Commission. Always she was told someone would look into the problem. Nothing ever seemed to happen. "I felt like I was working full time for U S West," she recalls.

Eventually, Barker-Nunn began to suspect that what she was dealing with was more than a run-of-the-mill snafu--that there was something more fundamentally wrong with U S West and the new service it had so aggressively pitched. In its rush to transform itself into a whiz-bang digital provider, the phone company seemed to have become unable to offer her the most fundamental of products--a dial tone. "They're so eager to bring you into the 21st Century and give you all these new services," Barker-Nunn says. "They couldn't get my phone working."

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