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I don't know which was worse: Repeatedly being told "we realize your time is important" as I waited for a live agent or the regular recycling of messages touting the very services I had already purchased and was calling about.

I was trapped this morning in Verizon's customer service hell on hold more often than not as I was bounced from a call center in New Jersey through four service reps around the country. Now, I should make it clear that when I did actually get through to live people, they were friendly.

It's just that the waits between the time with real people dragged what should have been a simple process taking only a few minutes into  an hour-and-a-quarter marathon. The saga isn't over yet.

And the reason for my troubles is a law passed by the California Legislature after a combined $26 million lobbying effort by telephone giants AT&T and Verizon.

Here's my problem in a nutshell: Verizon  promised us a television set, but so far has only offered a a $100 Circuit City Gift Card.

The Details

For I don't know how long Verizon was flooding our mailbox with letters offering its FiOS Triple Freedom plan. I didn't pay much attention, but my wife Carol finally focused. We could get unlimited telephone calling in the United States, upgraded television service and even faster internet service over the Verizon fiber optic network  for less than we were paying separately for cable TV, phone and DSL internet service.

And to clinch the deal Verizon promised to throw in a 19-inch flat screen TV. Carol checked the financial details and I was tasked with signing up.  The only hitch was that the offer expired on Saturday, Feb. 16.

Being a fellow who occasionally procrastinates, I called on Feb.16 .  I finally got through to a live person at a call center. The very helpful representative took my information, fed it into her database and sadly informed me that the plan wasn't available in Redondo Beach, CA.

Why then, I asked, had I been flooded with letters and promotional fliers offering the service.

She couldn't tell me, but passed me to her supervisor.  Of course I was on hold again first. He checked out the database and reached the same conclusion: not available in Redondo Beach. He also said his call center was in Houston, Texas.

What About The TV?

He suggested I call the local office on Monday when it would be open and kindly gave me a direct telephone number. "What about the TV?" I asked. "Monday is past the deadline."

Tell them what happened, that you called on Saturday and it shouldn't be a problem, he said.

So I called  first thing Monday morning. Naturally I was on hold for 20 minutes or so. When I got a person, I explained what had happened and was assured that, yes, we would be eligible for the television. I ordered the three bundled services and made an appointment for an installer to come to the house.

Cleo actually got there when he said he would and was outstanding. He proved to be efficient, extremely knowledgeable and patient with us quasi-Luddites as he explained how everything would work.  Cleo even left his cell number and said we should call if there was anything about the technical aspects of the installation that we didn't understand.

The deal was that a couple of weeks after the installation we were supposed to receive a letter  telling us how to claim our television. The letter came, except  it explained how to get a $100 Circuit City Gift Card.

Bounced Around The Country

So I called Verizon this morning.  I ended up with Arthur in New Jersey. His job was to take FiOS orders. I explained my problem. After agreeing that I should get the TV, but not being able to do anything about it, he switched me to the "Rewards and Promotions Department."

After holding forever, Tiffany came on the line listened sympathetically, but explained the order and billing records aren't transferred to her department until four to six weeks after the service is installed. She did not have access to my file.  

Tiffany passed me to "Eligibility Determination" where, after the usual endless wait, Tina, who was working in Seattle, sympathetically listened to my tale of woe. She gave me a number that goes to the local office for future use, but said my situation should be "escalated" to a group that could resolve it. Tina called this group "FiOS Elite."

At this point, clear that I would be late for work, I decided to stick it out till the bitter end. Peggy finally came on the telephone. She seemed a little bit puzzled with the term "FiOS Elite", and described  her operation as a "retention unit."

She was on and off the telephone with me for about 20 minutes. She took my story, filled out forms describing it and then explained those would be forwarded to someone who would make a decision about what to do.  She promised someone would call me back within two days.

So now I'm waiting for that call.

$26 Million Campaign

Now you ask, what does this have to do with a $26 million lobbying campaign by AT&T and Verizon? Simple: It used to be cable television companies had to get a franchise from local municipalities to string cables. In California there were 500 such municipal agreements and local governments had some clout over cable firms.

When technology progressed so that telephone companies could offer television and internet service over their fiber optic networks, they twisted arms and pushed through a bill that ends the municipal franchises and moves it to the state level.  There is no responsive local agency looking out for the consumer's interest. There's no fear of losing the franchise if the local community is badly served. And there's no incentive to have local teams respond to a consumer's problems.

I suppose there is this bright side: at least all the call centers I talked to are in the United States. I wonder how long that will be the case. Meanwhile, I let you know what happens when I get my call back from Verizon.