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Phone Hex

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?

Wheeler's Bisbee customers aren't the only ones who feel victimized by what is perceived as US West's corporate quest to score big in a merger with Qwest.

Among the so-called "Baby Bell" companies, US West recently was ranked last in customer satisfaction on a J.D. Power and Associates survey. And customers and utility regulators throughout the company's 14-state area are protesting what they say is US West's shoddy service record. For instance, a lawsuit filed by angry customers in Colorado alleges that US West purposely chose to skimp on service and equipment that would benefit current customers so it could invest in high-tech companies.

US West says the lawsuit is without merit.

But for whatever reason, US West has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in futuristic enterprises while condemning its rural customers to live in the past. A tiny fraction of that high-tech money could improve equipment and lines in communities like Bisbee.

The proposed $45.2 billion merger with Qwest would not have been possible without an aggressive business plan that abandons some rural areas. The business plan that enabled US West to invest in futuristic companies, reduce the work force and sell off unprofitable rural areas was promoted by current US West CEO Sol Trujillo, who stands to personally reap $44.7 million after the Qwest merger is completed next year.

Although customer complaints are recorded in news stories and utilities commission hearings and lawsuits, US West takes offense at any intimation that it is ignoring its customers.

"US West has faced greater growth in its 14 states than the other Baby Bells, serves less densely populated areas (with higher costs per line) and has invested multiple billions of dollars in building telephone infrastructure during the past several years," says US West spokesman Jim Roof.

"In Arizona," he says, "US West will spend two thirds of a billion dollars during 1999 alone for infrastructure, bringing the last four years' total to about $2 billion. This is not ignoring infrastructure needs."

As for high-speed Internet access lines in rural areas, Roof says: ". . . as far as I can tell, every other telephone provider puts those where the expressed demand justifies the cost. Because about 90 percent of our total customer lines are in Phoenix and Tucson . . . [installing high-speed Internet lines] is usually more focused on those two areas."

In short, the cities get the latest gadgets and fiber-optic lines while places like Bisbee don't.

But Roof also says US West has invested in rural areas, has updated all rural switching offices. He says smaller companies eligible for federal subsidies can better serve rural areas. That would be Citizens Utilities, to which US West wants to sell its rural lines in Arizona and several other states for more than $1 billion.

But Citizens Utilities, a multifaceted utility company, has a checkered reputation, and some critics say it is not much better than US West. For instance, in August, the state determined that Citizens had overcharged its natural gas customers in Santa Cruz County and ordered the company to refund about $280 to each customer. And in February, the Nogales City Council settled with Citizens over customer complaints stemming from nine power outages in four months. The settlement agreement was expected to net each customer about $15. And back in 1996, the Corporation Commission slashed a Citizens rate hike request because, among other things, Citizens spent money on such perks as an executive chef.


Loyal as he would like to be to his employer, Tom Wheeler does not buy US West's company line.

In January, he e-mailed this reporter condemning US West for abandoning rural customers who had always paid their phone bills.

"I fully realize that by talking to the press that the company will find an excuse to fire me, but this has to be said," he wrote -- prophetically.

And Wheeler, who makes $50,000 annually and will qualify for a pension of about $1,400 monthly, was not afraid to take on Trujillo, who makes nearly $1 million annually and has a retirement nest egg that will include tens of millions of dollars when the Qwest deal goes through.

 

After all, 33-year veteran phone man Wheeler has worked for the company longer than Trujillo, who reportedly has less than 30 years of service.

So Tom Wheeler told Sol Trujillo a thing or two.

Publicly.

In two angry newspaper columns, published in September in Tucson and Safford, Wheeler observed that US West had invested millions in services for the cities while failing to invest in rural phone equipment to keep loyal, longtime customers properly served. He noted that Trujillo claimed to care about the rural areas in a 1998 speech to the Federal Communications Commission.

"For people who live and work in rural America, whether rural America has a modern telecommunications infrastructure is both a quality of life and economic development issue," Trujillo told the FCC in 1998.

But then in 1999, US West chose to bail out on Bisbee, Wheeler noted.

The editorials came to the attention of US West's legal department. On October 8, Wheeler was summoned to a "discipline meeting" in which a "warning of dismissal" was placed in Wheeler's personnel file.

According to a transcript of the taped meeting, Wheeler was chastised for violating US West's code of conduct by identifying himself as a US West employee in the columns and misstating issues that had the effect of "disparaging" US West.

"All employees have a duty of loyalty to their employers and specifically the code of conduct obligates employees to not adversely impact US West's business reputation or goodwill," the corporate warning states.

Roof, the US West spokesman, would only say this about the meeting: "Tom Wheeler has met with his manager and his manager's boss on at least one occasion recently, and during the meeting Tom was given a warning notice. The warning pertained specifically to violations of US West's code of conduct, which applies to all employees. Beyond that, I won't comment on the details of the meetings."

"They will probably fire me," says Wheeler. "But for what? I am entitled to speak under the First Amendment, and what I'm saying is true. I don't like it when someone abridges my rights to freedom of speech."

A few days after the "warning of dismissal" was placed in Wheeler's file, he spoke out again. This time, at a meeting chaired by Corporation Commissioner Bill Mundell, who had been traveling the state hearing horror stories of US West service in rural areas.

At the meeting, Mundell, an attorney, learned that Wheeler might be fired for speaking out. He says he spoke directly to US West officials in the audience in Wheeler's defense.

"I said that if he [Wheeler] is in these meetings testifying truthfully, then he should be able to exercise his First Amendment rights . . . ," Mundell says. "He has worked for the company for years and has been mayor of Bisbee, it would seem like good testimony.

". . . I reminded US West that we could issue a subpoena for Tom Wheeler to testify and he would be obligated to testify truthfully.

"I was offended that they would retaliate against him.

"I said I would be very disappointed if that's the corporate culture at US West."

The proposed sale of US West's rural areas to Citizens Utilities still must be approved by the Corporation Commission, and Mundell says the Corporation Commission will "look carefully" at whether US West should be required to invest in modern equipment in Bisbee and other rural areas before the sale goes through.

"The problem to me is that there has been a lack of investment by US West in the infrastructure in the rural areas," he says. "That's probably because they are selling them off. . . . Why should they invest in technology when they plan to sell something off if they can use duct tape?"

Mundell says customers throughout the state have complained about US West's service. In the cities, there are problems with technicians failing to show up to put in new lines, or customers complaining about getting "the runaround" on dates for installation or repairs. Small towns have those problems, and others, too.

Which brings us back to Bisbee, where Telephone Tom Wheeler has become a local hero for taking on the phone company -- and risking his job.

All Wheeler wants is for US West to invest in rural areas before it sells them off. Otherwise, he fears, phone rates will soar when a new company moves in and upgrades the systems.

Just about everybody in Bisbee agrees with Telephone Tom.

 

"We're not a bunch of dummies here like everyone thinks," says Tony Psomas, executive director of the Bisbee Chamber of Commerce, which began complaining about poor phone service 18 years ago.

"People are tired of US West's service, they are fed up with it, countywide," says Psomas. "People are fed up with these companies taking our money and not providing service. Getting online takes a long time, and we have fast computers. But it's not the computers, it's the phone lines.

"Tom Wheeler is very highly regarded. He's well-known and people stand behind him. If US West fires Tom, you wouldn't believe what would happen. There would be a committee of citizens at the Corporation Commission in a heartbeat."

Telephone Tom is also a hero at Bisbee's new Esperanza Apartments, where residents who are elderly and disabled haven't gotten phones installed for two months, says manager Mary Heth.

"I won't even talk to US West anymore," she says. "It's false promise after false promise after false promise. . . . Every time we called, it would be a different story. 'We'll be there tomorrow; the wire isn't right; there are not enough lines coming in.' They put you on hold. They disconnect you. I won't even call them anymore. I cannot do it."

Michael Neri, a disabled former insurance executive who lives in Bisbee, says he recently chose the town as the ideal place to recover from multiple illnesses, including cancer. He thought Bisbee had a healing atmosphere.

Until he tried to get a phone.

"I did not realize," says Neri, who cannot get a phone put in his home, "how grossly underserved Bisbee was by US West."

Neri plans to sue US West for, among other things, violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by not providing him with a telephone.

The City of Bisbee actually has taken the first step toward a lawsuit against US West. It recently filed a complaint against the company with the Arizona Corporation Commission, says attorney Jim Conlogue. If the complaint, which requests reasonable phone service, is not solved to Bisbee's satisfaction at the commission, the next step is Superior Court.

Through all of this, Tom Wheeler has tried to do his job repairing broken phone lines.

"A lot of people will be just furious when I get to their house," says Wheeler of frustrated phone customers. "Usually, they aren't mad when I leave."


All Bisbee really wants is modern phone service, and all Telephone Tom wants is to stand up for Bisbee. US West co-workers have expressed support, yet some are afraid to be seen having coffee with him.

His family remains supportive, but Kathy worries about finances, he says. And so does he. If he's fired, he'll fight it because he doesn't think he's done anything wrong. Even if he gets his US West pension, it won't support a family. He'll look for another job. At 50, that might be tough.

But Telephone Tom is not afraid of a fight.

"My nose has been broken so many times there's a permanent tilt to the left," he says, speaking literally.

He's asked if his crusade isn't somehow linked to a midlife crisis. After all, he just turned 50.

"It might be, but I doubt it," he says.

"I've fallen in love with Bisbee. I've been involved in community service for many years. This is my ultimate in community service -- to make sure this town doesn't get a raw deal."

Telephone Tom pauses.

"Haven't you ever felt so strongly about something that you had to take a risk? I was always taught you gotta try hard. Sometimes you fail and get kicked in the teeth and sometimes you succeed. Boy, when you succeed, there is nothing sweeter. . . . Who knows? Maybe the Corporation Commission will listen."

Another pause.

"What my company is doing is wrong, and I'm going to speak against it."

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 602-229-8437 or at her online address terry.greene@newtimes.com


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