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Utilities — PacBell, Cox Fail to Communicate

Utilities: Both Companies

Exchange Barbed Words

Over Phone Book Mess

To hear them tell it, the latest flap over San Diego phone books involves two communications companies having difficulty talking to each other.

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Pacific Bell and Cox Communications are each pointing fingers at the other as PacBell briefly flirted with shipping about 1 million phone books erroneously containing unlisted numbers.

Pacific Bell began shipments of those phone books May 31, then stopped the following day after Cox requested a temporary restraining order from the California Public Utilities Commission.

Cox also requested the CPUC formally mediate the dispute with Pacific Bell.

The problem stems from a computer mix-up that resulted in Cox inadvertently providing PacBell with the unlisted numbers of Cox phone customers. The PacBell directory provides listings for all public phone numbers, including those of customers of competing phone companies.

Spokesmen for the two companies have strong words for each other.

“I am shocked that Pacific Bell has begun distributing phone books that they know contain incorrect information. So we had no choice but to take legal action on behalf of our customers to stop PacBell from distributing the incorrect phone books,” said Dan Novak, vice president of programming and communications for Cox.

Novak also accused Pacific Bell of failing to work with Cox.

Accusations Fly

“We have tried over and over and over again to get PacBell to sit down, to work through the logistics of reclaiming the tainted books, and reprinting new books. And they have been unwilling to do that,” Novak said.

Brian Brokowski, spokesman for Pacific Bell, offers a different perspective. When the mistake was discovered, PacBell voluntarily suspended distribution of the phone book, giving Cox time to communicate with customers and work out solutions. In that time, Cox made no move toward reprinting the books or picking up the $4 million tab, he said.

“We’ve provided numerous opportunities to Cox to reprint the books, and they have not accepted those offers to reprint,” he said.

Brokowski acknowledged the printing of unlisted phone numbers could be a serious safety concern for some of the people, such as undercover police officers. But PacBell was not responsible, he said.

‘Share The Concern’

“We totally share the concern regarding the customers that have been affected by this,” he said. “But again, it points back to Cox’s acknowledged responsibility for submitting the information. Cox is dealing with its customers on this issue, and Cox has chosen not to accept the option of reprinting the book.”

Brokowski noted Cox is one of more than 20 communications companies submitting information for printing in the phone book. PacBell has obligations to those companies, as well as its advertisers, to make sure the phone books appear on time, he said.

For his part, Novak vehemently denied Cox was dragging its feet.

“That is absolutely not true. And if it were true, we would have no reason to sit down with the CPUC and have them mediate this discussion,” Novak said. “We would have no reason to file legal action for them to come to the table, if they were willing to come to the table.”

The problem began when what Novak described as a “glitch” in Cox’s software allowed the company to include 11,400 of its unlisted customers for publication in PacBell’s new phone book. Novak confirmed that Cox was the source of the error.

More than 400,000 phone books were sent out before the error was discovered May 4. Distribution of the phone books was halted shortly thereafter.

Novak stressed the company was working to remedy the problem and make sure it never happens again. Cox replaced the software responsible for the glitch, promised to revamp its double-checking procedure for next year, and began working with each of its customers to remedy the damage.

Restraining Order Requested

That was two weeks ago. Then on Wednesday, Pacific Bell announced its intentions to immediately ship the rest of the phone books , with the unlisted phone numbers still in place.

Cox responded immediately by filing the request for a temporary restraining order with the California Public Utilities Commission. Jack Leutza, director of the CPUC’s telecommunications division, confirmed the agency had received the documents May 31.

The agency was expected to make a ruling June 1, he said. No decision had been made by the press time for the San Diego Business Journal.

Meantime, the CPUC requested that Pacific Bell temporarily stop distribution of the phone books. PacBell agreed to the request, Leutza said.

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