Cash Gets Sacked by Linebacker

It sounds harmless enough -- $2 a month for security against an unwanted inconvenience. Like every stiff-haired salesman has said the world over, you get what you pay for. But what consumers pay for in the case of inside wire maintenance, or "linebacker," an optional service offered by U.S. West Communications, is something that may provide less than a real bargain. Along with the now-familiar list of telephone service extras -- call waiting, call forwarding and caller I.D. -- wire maintenance is supposed to cover repairs to a customer's line inside their home or apartment. And while U.S. West representatives say the extra service provides peace of mind against phone-line snafus, some consumer advocates say it's the telephone service equivalent of the extended-warranty scam pushed by large electronics retailers.According to company officials, U.S. West is only responsible for a consumer's telephone line up to the point where it enters a residence. After that, consumers are on their own, at least if they don't have inside wire maintenance. At $1.95 a month [in Idaho, for instance] the service allows customers to have a U.S. West technician come to their homes and fix the line should anything inside the home go wrong, says Boise-area U.S. West spokesman Clint Berry."If you've got older wiring, or small children or pets who can stick things in the phone jacks, wire maintenance gives people peace-of-mind that it will be fixed," he says. "If you've got the kind of exposed jacks that stick out from the wall, a lot of things can happen. It is an optional service." Others say that sense of tranquillity doesn't come without a heavy premium, and that programs such as wire maintenance service are unnecessary safeguards against rare problems."It's just very expensive insurance," says Mark Cooper, the director of research at the Washington D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America. Cooper says that in court cases, regional phone providers in other areas of the country have estimated that only about 7 percent of their customers require such service calls each year. That means a customer could expect to have a problem with their inside telephone wire once every 14 years on average. "They've said the average cost for those kinds of calls is about $70. You pay for it after three years, so the next 11 years is profit."Beverly Barker, consumer assistance section supervisor for the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, says "value-added" services like the inside wire maintenance are becoming more common among all the various utility providers as deregulation threatens their once-secure monopolies. Such companies as Utah Power offer "hassle-free" maintenance program, which provides guaranteed service for a monthly fee.Barker says the Public Utilities Commission takes no stand on value-added services. Because such options aren't regulated like normal telephone or electricity service, the commission only concerns itself with making sure the companies don't use regular service revenue to bolster their efforts in unregulated, value-added services."We try and remain neutral," she says. "Our concern is that service regulated by us doesn't subsidize these other offerings."

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