by Bill Snyder

Hang up on Verizon

Dec 30, 20114 mins
CarriersMobileSmall and Medium Business

After suffering 3 outages of its 4G network in December, Verizon now wants to charge $2 to pay bills online. Customer pressure stopped Bank of America from charging outrageous fees; let's do the same to Verizon.rnrn

Earlier this month, I celebrated the demise of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, stopped by the Obama administration out of concerns that it would make the wireless market even less competitive than it already is. Now, we can see in practice why that was such a big victory for consumers and why the ability to switch carriers is so important.

Verizon, the largest wireless carrier in the country, has long been known for a relatively decent network run by a company with a serious disregard for its customers. We saw that terrible attitude again this week when the company had what my Mom used to call “the unmitigated gall” to announce that as of January 15 it will charge $2 if you pay your bill online or over the phone. And that followed three December outages of its 4G LTE network that affected customers across the country.

Let’s start with the billing issue. When you pay your bill online, you’re saving Verizon the costs of mailing you a bill, opening the letter, and processing the check. They should thank you. Instead, they say that the big bad credit card companies are charging them too much and they are forced to pass it on to you.  When you pay over the phone, there’s no labor involved either because you’re talking to a machine, not a worker. Again, they should thank you.

There are ways to avoid that charge. If you set up automatic payment or mail the company a check or pay at a Verizon store or use online banking (as opposed to paying on the Verizon site) the fee is waived — for now. I’m aware, of course, that $2 isn’t much money these days, but it is your money. Why give it to Verizon and get nothing in return? And when you multiply $2 by some millions or even hundreds of thousands of customers a month, it suddenly becomes substantial.

In other words, Verizon had hoped that by tacking on a relatively small fee, it would pocket a pretty big boost to its own bottom line. Well, I think that stinks. As consumers it’s not our job to worry about the company’s profits. If they want to make more money, offer better service.

Speaking of that bottom line, don’t worry too much about Verizon’s profitability. Third-quarter net income at New York-based Verizon Communications, which co-owns the wireless business with Vodafone Group Plc, doubled to $1.38 billion from $659 million a year earlier, according to Bloomberg News.

And speaking of better service, how about those 4G outages? Three in one month. Verizon explains (or maybe rationalizes is the better word) the outages as “growing pains,” and says the network has had 99 percent up time over the last year. That sounds pretty good until you do the math. Outages of 1 percent over the course of a year equal more than 87 hours of no service. The real standard of phone service has long been known as the “three nines,” which is to say uptime of 99.999 percent.

In November, a consumer backlash forced Bank of America to cancel an outrageous a $5-per-month fee for debit card users. Why not put some pressure on Verizon? Call them, write them, blog and twitter about them. And maybe switch carriers if you’re angry enough.

And since T-Mobile isn’t dead, thanks to the anti-trust action, you still have three other major carriers to choose from. Give it some thought, and have a great New Year.

UPDATE: Under pressure from angry consumers, Verizon backed off and will not charge that outrageous fee. To all of you who rattled the company’s cage: Way to go!

(Disclosure: I belong to a union, the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a union which currently has a dispute with Verizon.)