St. Joe slays the paper tiger

Friday, August 29, 2003

I'd like to say something nice about my telephone bill.

But I can't.

Except that I'd like to have the contract to supply the paper on which SBC prints bills for millions of customers.

I am entirely satisfied with my telephone service. In addition to our home phone, my wife and I also have cell phones and high-speed Internet service, all provided by SBC.

But the bill we received this months was 12 -- an entire dozen -- pages. Why?

The first page tells me how much I owe. The only other thing I'm even remotely interested in is what long-distance calls I'm being charged for. And if either of us ever used more cell-phone minutes than our base plan provides, I'd probably want to a list of those calls too.

The way I see it, everything I would ever want to know about our phone, cell phone and Internet service could satisfactorily be summed up on one sheet of paper, front and back.

SBC uses both sides of the paper right now. But some sides are blank except for these words:

"This page is intentionally left blank."

But another blank page is ... well, it's blank. Period.

I wonder if that page is intentionally blank or accidentally blank. Maybe I'm missing important information that didn't fit on the other 11 pages. Who knows?

I suppose I'm like most of SBC's customers. I get riled up with the multipage phone bill every month, but I don't read it. I just throw it away.

This month I read my phone bill. I swear to God I pored over it for more than 30 minutes trying to figure out (a) if there was anything I really needed to know and (b) why the phone company chooses to mail out bills that take more than half an hour to read.

Over the years, as phone bills have became more and more complicated, I've heard some explanations from SBC folks. They've tried to tell me that customers want detailed bills.

Hello. I'm a customer with a 12-page bill I never wanted or asked for.

And they've tried to tell me the government makes phone companies send out complicated bills that few, if any, of their customers understand.

Hello. I'm a U.S. citizen -- part of the "people" in government of, by and for the people -- and I've never asked any government agency, regulator or legislator for a 12-page bill. Never.

Besides, phone-company lobbyists are among the strongest corporate voices in the halls of Congress and state legislatures. They tend to get their way. A lot.

So, when they send out bills, why don't SBC and the other phone companies give the same service their customers have grown to depend on and appreciate when they're talking to Grandma or calling a friend from the car or surfing their favorite Web sites?

I've asked my bank if it's possible to print a 12-page check for me to use to pay my telephone bill. I'd like the check to appear randomly somewhere among the dozen pages. I'll fill the other pages with a reprint of this column and some of my favorite Speak Out calls. And I'll leave some of the pages blank -- intentionally, of course. I haven't decided yet if I'll tell the phone company the blank pages are intentional. I might leave them guessing.

I'll also point out, on my 12-page check to SBC, that if every bill I received had a dozen pages, the U.S. Postal Service would need semis to deliver the mail. And I'll bet postage would go up again. Don't get me started on postage.

Come to think of it, I've noticed an alarming trend in bills. Most of them are more than one page these days. Even the city utilities bill, which used to be a simple postcard, now fattens a business-size envelope. Why?

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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