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Getting AT&T's attention shouldn't be this hard

The Watchdog is getting socked with complaints about AT&T. Everybody has a different beef with the company.

Service is promised, then denied. Billing problems aren't corrected. And the worst? Monthly prices on some services went up last month as much as $12 for some households.

I've shared every problem with the Dallas-based company, and it quickly corrected some easier ones. But why do customers need a Watchdog intervention to get AT&T to solve their problems?

Ron Shelton wanted to shut down one phone line to his Benbrook home, but AT&T didn't close the line -- it added another one. He calls every month seeking a fix.

"I have talked to supervisors, overseas assistants, customer service representatives, all of whom see the problem and all of whom say they have it fixed," he said.

But the bills keep coming. The last straw was the letter from a collection agency. "I have no idea where to go from here," he told The Watchdog.

Fran Longeway of Fort Worth is tangled up dealing with the estate of her mother, who passed away on New Year's Day. Her biggest hassle? Because AT&T keeps charging for services that were canceled, she can't settle the estate.

Kathleen Reilly of Arlington spoke "to a gazillion" people at AT&T before she wrote The Watchdog. Nobody would give her credit for a three-day outage of her home phone and a weeklong outage of Internet services. She's also getting bills for U-verse TV installation that was never completed because installers told her the house was "250 feet shy of getting a good signal."

Wes Allard of Mansfield sent a modem back to the company but got a bill for $87 anyway. He calls each month and keeps records of whom he talks to but gets nowhere. "Can you help us against this giant?" he asked.

The Watchdog helped Longeway, who was sent a final bill so she could settle the estate; Reilly, who received a $234 credit; and Allard, who got an $87 credit.

Customers say they feel helpless fighting price increases. (An AT&T spokeswoman told me they are "modest price adjustments.")

Ellen Chase, a former AT&T employee, complained of a recent price increase on her U-verse bill even with her employee discount.

She points out that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson took a $2 million pay cut to $18 million because he couldn't pull off a merger with T-Mobile, ultimately blocked by the government.

AT&T also has to pay $4.2 billion in cash and spectrum rights to T-Mobile as a "breakup fee" to compensate T-Mobile for the failed merger. Chase says she sees a connection between those developments and her bill increase.

AT&T spokeswoman Alejandra Arango says price increases took effect Feb. 1. Most U-verse TV customers saw an increase of $2 to $5 a month depending on their TV package.

U-verse high-speed Internet customers pay $4 to $7 more. AT&T high-speech Internet customers saw an increase of $3 to $5. "The maximum increase a customer with both U-verse TV and Internet will see is approximately $12," Arango told me. In return, she says, customers get more channels and access to more features.

Contrast that with Verizon, which, like AT&T, has a strong North Texas presence. A Verizon spokesman says the only recent fee increase announcement is a $1 monthly increase to rent a digital video recorder, effective in May.

The most disheartened AT&T customer to contact The Watchdog is George Michael Sherry of Fort Worth, who says he makes only about 12 calls a month. His land-line plan is old, now discontinued. He is charged a monthly measured rate, which means he gets a limited number of outgoing calls, and for anything above that, he pays more.

Four years ago, his base monthly bill with taxes was $15. Now with continued increases, he pays $30. "For the exact same service," he said.

Sherry, 58, has considered ditching his land line but feels an emotional attachment. Without a land line, it "would feel like I am disappearing, like no longer existing."

Finally, Nolan Watts told me he is furious because he received a warning that he is a high data user. His unlimited cellphone service is in danger of slowing down as he nears his allotted usage, though his plan is unlimited.

His problem? "I watch about 25 minutes of TV video at lunchtime about four days a week."

AT&T has announced a crackdown on high data users. The company suggests that smartphone customers use Wi-Fi networks rather than cellular networks for music and video.

That points to one cause of these difficulties, telecommunications expert Ray Horak says. Companies such as AT&T and Verizon have rushed out so many new services in recent years that they are victims of their own success.

Demand for streaming music and video is greater than available bandwidth. Complex services have problems sometimes not easily solvable.

There are several directions to go. A company can raise prices, throttle some services and continue to expand its network. AT&T is doing all of that.

Horak worked a stint as business manager of an AT&T office in Dallas. The internal company slogan was, "We may be the only telephone company in town, but we try not to act like it."

Those were the days.

"The level of criticism [against the phone company] is much more severe today," he said.

Sunday: The Watchdog's guide to filing an online property tax protest.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays. Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter: @davelieber

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