June 13, 2005 Dave Sharp, president and chief executive officer of the V.I. Telephone Co., said Monday night Vitelco, also known as Innovative Telephone, is not happy with the level of service the company is providing. "We understand that we have a lot of work to do."
He was not the only one to express those sentiments.
Speaking at a meeting of the Coral Bay Community Council, Sharp said aging equipment and increasing demands for service especially on St. John have left the company behind on new installations and repairs.
Several of the two-dozen people filling the meeting room at John's Folly Learning Institute told stories of waiting more than two years to have a phone installed many still didn't have land phones or suffering months, even years, without reliable phone service while still being billed. Several said they had given up trying to get help after waiting hours for a customer service representative to take their call — only to be told the problem would be fixed, when it wasn't, or that they would call back, and never did.
"What do people do when they feel the standard ways of getting help aren't working?" asked Sharon Coldren, president of the Coral Bay group.
One of the answers Sharp offered was to "Call Tom Dunn." Dunn, who is the public relations officer for the company, was also at the meeting. He gave out his number and told the group to call him directly at 715-8643. Later a list was passed around for people to put down their names, problems and phone numbers, though several still don't have phones and they would get attention.
When asked specifically if Vitelco had enough lines and switches to accommodate St. John's needs, Sharp said, "No. This island is growing … we don't have enough lines for everybody who builds a house."
Candid though it was, most of the two dozen people in attendance didn't find that answer acceptable.
Jean Cottrell, an East End resident, said that everyone has a right to basic phone service.
"You are the only company. We are entitled to phone service."
She said East Enders have been left helpless after a couple car accidents one a fatality when time was wasted trying to get to someone who had a land line and could call for help.
There are large areas of St. John, especially in Coral Bay and the East End, where cell phones don't work.
Alvis Christian, deputy director of the St. John office of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, said from his perspective at VITEMA, "It's a nightmare for us here on St. John."
"There's nothing I can say to make you happy," Sharp said, "because you've had shitty service for x number of months."
But for many at the meeting it was more than months and more than just bad phone service.
People complained of not being able to get through to the service center getting busy signals or a message that said the "mail box" was full.
Others complained of constantly getting a message, "All circuits are busy now," which Sharp blamed on the cell phone providers and the long distance carries, who he said didn't have enough circuits.
But one phone customer, Pam Gaffin, claimed that when queried the other carriers told her Vitleco didn't have any circuits to give them.
Sharp said, "That's not true. I'll challenge them on that." He also said that getting the "your special feature code has not been accepted" message was a combination of the new added features interfacing with old equipment and also because people start dialing before having a true dial tone.
"I don't have any special features on my phone," Carey Chapin said.
Sharp responded that it could be an anomaly on her line.
"Then I've had an anomaly in my system for five years," Chapin said, also voicing the often-heard complaint about her phone going dead whenever it rains.
Sharp had explained earlier that many of the old phone lines have paper insulation. "Water plays havoc with those," he said.
In fact he spoke of a recent water-related problem on St. Croix that left hundreds of residents and businesses without phone service for more than a week. It was "our worst nightmare," Sharp said.
One resident asked why the company didn't hire more people to get the work done, "Is it a money problem?"
Sharp said the problem was trying to "manage" too many work crews at the same time.
Gaffin pointed out that Vitelco receives money from the Universal Service Fund "to provide rural service."
Vitelco gets what amounts to about $20 per phone line — more than $12 million a year — from the USF, a fund that is financed by all rate payers across the nation including Virgin Islanders to guarantee that all Americans have access to phone lines.
Sharp said, "We're trying to provide dial tone. USF funds are for basic service."
The tenor at Monday night's meeting would suggest that many feel they are not getting that.
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