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Monopolizing the Phone Lines

Some critics of HSTO claim that it is a monopoly and others worry that it permits invasions of student privacy

By Jonathan A. Lewin

When Whit D. Pidot '96 makes a long distance telephone call, he uses his cellular telephone because he says the long distance rates charged by the Harvard Student Telephone Office (HSTO) are so inflated.

Though his pocket-sized phone costs $29 per month, Pidot says the savings are substantial. A 30 minute call to Andover, Mass., for instance, costs $3 under HSTO and $.35 on a cellular phone after 7 p.m., he says.

Pidot, as well as a small but vocal group of students, complain HSTO doesn't offer students savings on phone service and excludes them from special offers advertized by MCI, the University's designated carrier.

With only seven employees in the one-floor office on Ware Street, HSTO serves undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty and administrators.

HSTO is essentially a liaison for New England Telephone. It controls the wires which run from its offices to student dorms. It determines telephone rates, controls Personal Access Codes (PAC), bills students and screens repair calls for New England Telephone.

The office was created four years ago to "take advantage of the Harvard University Network," says Jack Wise, manager of HSTO. HSTO's fees for activation and long distance are substantially lower than those of New England Telephone, he says.

"We can provide better service, at a better expense than New England Telephone," Wise says.

But students complain that HSTO's reduced rates are still higher than the special long distance offers by many major long distance carriers. Wise says the University currently bills students 95 percent of MCI's standard rates.

Of the 95 percent, though, it is unclear how much the University must actually pay MCI and how much of the percentage goes towards HSTO operations. Pidot, who wrote a piece on HSTO in The Harvard Salient last year, claims Harvard pays MCI only 50 percent of their rates.

Wise said the University has signed a non-disclosure agreement with MCI prohibiting any University offical from discussing the rates Harvard pays MCI. Wise said HSTO determines how much to charge students so it can pay MCI and still recover for costs.

The HSTO service plan also prevents students from taking advantage of special long distance packages, such as MCI's "Friends and Family" deal, which gives students discounted rates for numbers they frequently call.

Wise says students can't use the special long distance offers because the University has negotiated a flat long distance rate with MCI, which gives the University a cheaper long distance rate compared to standard rates.

In response to many student inquiries over the year about MCI's discount plans, Wise says he is investigating whether HSTO can offer students long-distance packages in the future.

Wise concedes students who make a high volume of long distance calls get hit by the small differences between various carrier's rates.

"Only a fraction of a percentage of students go with New England Telephone, and most students who change make a high volume of calls," Wise says.

Some charge that HSTO can maintain high rates relative to discount programs because it enjoys a University-enforced monopoly on student service.

The office automatically assigns students to its service when they arrive on campus. In order to use carriers other than MCI, HSTO charges students a $5 surcharge per month for carrying the telephone service to a student's room.

"That we have to bribe Harvard $5 a month to use other services is absurd," says Pidot.

Pidot says the monthly fee is a disincentive for students to switch carriers and says that it makes HSTO a monopoly. He says he is considering pursuing the matter with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.

Wise says the fee levied by the office is not meant to be a deterrent but is necessary to help recoup the cost of rewiring the dorms several years ago. He says the $5 fee "probably doesn't even recover our costs."

When a student switches their service to New England Telephone, HSTO no longer bills the student and cannot take its percentage. So it levies a flat-rate charge on students who leave the system.

Wise says that HSTO does not pass on all of the savings it receives from its contract with MCI and New England Telephone. The office uses all of this money for its overhead costs, including daily operations, repairs and uncollectibles, he says. "We're not doing a direct pass-through on the long distance--anyone can figure that out," Wise says.

The Civil Liberties Union of Harvard (CLUH) investigated whether the HSTO-MCI lock on student service is illegal, according to Jol A. Silversmith '94, the group's former director. Federal law allows private telephone systems to restrict subscribers to a single carrier through the late 1990s, Silversmith says.

In addition to the $5 surcharge, students who want to subscribe directly to New England Telephone must jump bureaucratic hurdles--and get official College approval before making the switch.

First-years who call HSTO and request a service change are referred to the Freshman Dean's Office. The student then must set up an appointment and request permission to switch carriers, according to Lorri A. McDaniel, the office manager of the Freshman Dean's Office (FDO).

"It's more for our record keeping than anything else. Before a student switches service, we want to make sure that there is something wrong that we can fix," McDaniel said.

No one has ever questioned the legality of the policy, which has been in effect for over five years, she says, adding that she will raise the issue at the next FDO staff meeting.

Besides determining rates, HSTO's other major tasks are to bill students and to field repair calls.

Even though HSTO revamped its billing system this year, many students received their September and October bills late. Wise said that the September period is the most hectic of the year, as the HSTO must activate all its student lines and determine whom to bill for each of them.

In the past, students had to request activation of their telephone lines after they arrived on campus. Since all student lines were activated within a two to three week period, many students complained about the significant lagtime before they had workable telephone service.

One of HSTO's innovations was to activate lines before students arrive on campus. By getting lists of students and their addresses from the Registrar's Office, the HSTO automatically activate all suite lines.

If a room has more than one student, the HSTO randomly assigns one student to be the "line-owner," the person who pays the monthly line fees.

If a student contacts the HSTO in the first month, however, and changes an aspect of their service, the HSTO will make them the "line-owner."

Determining the "line-owners" and tracking more than 6,000 accounts takes time, Wise says, and explains why the September bills were late.

When a "line-owner" does not pay a bill over $5, HSTO sends a reminder and then disconnects the student's line after 60 days. When a student who has not paid a phone bill is about to graduate, HSTO contacts the Registrar's office and attempts to withhold the degree.

HSTO has taken this step only once in recent years, Wise said. More common is the use of a collection agency to attempt to recover unpaid bills.

Deliberate abuse of the phone system is rare, according to Wise. In recent years, Wise says he knows of only one student who attempted to run up high phone bills and graduate without paying them. The student was caught.

Although the PAC codes that HSTO distributes could lend themselves to abuse, Wise says that because of the "character and integrity of Harvard students, it really hasn't been a problem."

Only one student has gone before the Administrative Board since the PAC system was set up for deliberately misusing codes, according to Wise.

"It's not hard to find out someone else's PAC number," Wise said. "But we know what number you dialed from, and what number you dialed to. We can run a check to see everyone who has ever dialed the number you dialed."

Wise said that this sort of search is easy to do, because HSTO maintains its records as a database. But he said it is rarely done. He said that HSTO records have never been subpoenaed by a court.

While some critics of HSTO claim that it is a monopoly and others worry that it permits invasions of student privacy, Wise says that he is only too happy to address undergraduate concerns.

"There is a very vocal one percent of students who are very interested in their phone bills. I don't mind them--that's what makes my job interesting," Wise says.

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