Phone Hex

A US West telephone repairman goes to war against his employer in an attempt to see that his hometown is ready for a new century

Telephone Tom migrated to Bisbee in April 1979. Of course, back then he wasn't known as Telephone Tom, he was simply Tom Wheeler, a phone company worker who'd arranged a transfer from Phoenix to Cochise County because he was fed up with traffic and crowds and crime and sprawl. He was a good-looking 29-year-old fellow with a country accent, a guy who just wanted some peace and quiet so he could recover from a divorce and get on with his life.

By 1979, Wheeler had already worked for Mountain Bell, the precursor to US West, for 12 years. Like his father before him, he hoped to be a career phone man. He considered it a helping profession. There was something rewarding about being a phone man, a 1950s Rockwellian satisfaction that went along with installing and repairing phone lines and making customers happy.

Wheeler had no inkling that 20 years later, he would risk his job and his pension by speaking out publicly against what he would describe as his employer's "abandonment" of customers -- especially poor rural customers. Critics say US West's attempts to ditch unprofitable rural areas have made it more attractive for a high-tech merger that would reap US West's top executive at least $44.7 million.

But at age 29, Wheeler was simply happy with the job and enchanted with Bisbee. He relished the mix of retro hippies, offbeat artists and genuine old-timers who comprised the population of the historic, mountainous southern Arizona copper mining town, which today has a population of about 6,000.

Before long, Wheeler fell in love and was married in a ceremony officiated by the local undertaker. Wheeler and his wife, Kathy, spent $5,000 to buy a 100-year-old Queen Anne-style house perched high on a hill in the Old Bisbee district. You get to the home from downtown by climbing 75 steps carved into the hillside. In no time, it seemed, the Wheelers had four children, and Willy, the youngest, was home-birthed by Wheeler himself 13 years ago. He used sterilized telephone cable snips ("real sharp, good scissors") and boiled shoelaces as his main obstetrical instruments. The only thing that went wrong, he recalls, is that on the day Willy was born, Bisbee's water supply had been shut off. Kathy had to drive to a neighboring town to take a postpartum shower. She didn't mind at all.

Wheeler likes the bohemian flavor of his lifestyle, even today, as a self-described "bald old fart" who just turned 50. He allows it's "sort of hippielike," but he'll tell you he's no hippie -- beyond working for US West, which is hardly countercultural, he loathes tofu, chows on T-bones, refuses to take vitamins and presides over local chili cookoff contests in which the secret to making good chili, he's discovered, is "marinating the cooks for three days."

But there's a sober, civic-minded side to Wheeler, too. He was elected to Bisbee's city council in 1988. He remained a councilman until 1996, when he was elected mayor. He served a two-year term.

But as Wheeler's personal and civic life blossomed, his career with US West became more frustrating. It wasn't that he had ambitions of rising to management, or that he resented the long hours he logged as a US West telephone repairman. No, according to Wheeler, the frustration lay in the fact that Bisbee had some of the oldest phone equipment, or infrastructure, in Arizona, and US West would not invest sufficient manpower or dollars to fix it.

His beloved Bisbee was getting shorted.

"In different sections of the city," says Wheeler, "we've got cable in from 1918, 1930, 1920, 1940. It needs to be replaced. A big portion of it."

Because of the old phone lines, Internet access to data is sometimes 75 percent slower in Bisbee than in Phoenix. And customers wait for weeks to have their new phones put in.

Folks were unhappy.

Wheeler likened his job to "putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage."

He was outraged.

In January, when Denver-based US West announced it planned to sell its lines in 39 rural Arizona towns, including Bisbee, Wheeler decided to speak out against his employer, condemning US West for shorting, then "abandoning," poor rural areas in Arizona. Because any sale of US West lines must be approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission, Wheeler went to commission meetings and spoke his mind, and his eloquent perspective seems to have made some impact. Commissioners might force US West to modernize rural areas before it sells them off.

At meetings, Wheeler noted that US West chose to invest billions in high-tech enterprises that would benefit urban customers. He excoriated US West CEO Sol Trujillo for first saying US West cared about rural areas, then turning around and plotting to sell those service areas with their archaic infrastructure intact. And Wheeler noted that Trujillo would cash in big when US West merges with Qwest, another Denver-based communications company, next year. That merger would not have been possible, US West's critics say, if US West had not invested heavily in glitzy high-tech companies both here and abroad.

The key question Wheeler raises, and the question that is raised over and over by customers throughout US West's empire, is this: Did US West, a monopoly, use money that should have gone toward customer service and infrastructure to buy companies that made it look more attractive for mergers in the business world?

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