DIAL-A-TECH: 976 PHONE SERVICE TO BE REACTIVATED AFTER SIX-YEAR FIGHT
PUC: Bell is `Unreasonably Discriminatory' TURTLE CREEK, Pa., Nov. 18 /PRNewswire/ -- Dial-A-Tech, a dial-it,
technical information provider for consumers and industry, said today it is now reactivated, this after a six-year battle with Bell of Pennsylvania, a Bell Atlantic company, that culminated with a ruling by Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission (PUC). The service, which can now only be reached in the 412 area code at 976-2277, will go national by June 1994.
"For the first time, Dial-A-Tech gives the consumer easy access to engineers, technicians and tradespeople who can help them solve problems quickly and cost-effectively," Chuck Slater, founder of Dial-A-Tech, said. Dial-A-Tech will not accept phone calls from children. For $1 a minute, those with questions on the purchase, repair, and/or operation of cars, homes, appliances, video equipment, televisions, computers and software can call 976-2277 and consult "live" with a technical expert, anytime. The phone call, which averages seven to 10 minutes, is billed to the caller's monthly phone bill. If a caller is unable to reach the service or the Dial-A-Tech expert needs to access additional information, Dial-A-Tech will return the phone call at no charge. The information provider also serves industry with phone and on-site assistance. Nov. 1 marks the second activation of Dial-A-Tech, which, when it was first activated six years ago as 976-CARS, was a live advice line on buying, selling and repairing automobiles. When Bell cracked down on 976 porn lines in February 1988, it also pulled the phone plug on Slater, a Dial-A-Tech spokesman said. He took on Bell through the PUC in what Slater says was "a ridiculous six-year fight that nearly ruined my family and me." The PUC ruled that Bell was "unreasonably discriminatory." (See background information.) Slater and two others from Dial-A-Tech -- mechanical engineer Bill Ryckman and facilities manager Bob Pollack, plus a network of experts -- will initially man the phones at Dial-A-Tech's headquarters in the Keystone Commons industrial mall (formerly Westinghouse East Pittsburgh). Slater hopes to hire area men and women who are technical experts with good people skills. He will place special hiring emphasis upon retired seniors and the physically challenged who, with minor adjustments to the phone system, could work from their homes. The same $1-per-minute rate also applies to those in industry with technical questions on start-ups, troubleshooting, preventive maintenance, control circuit design and training. Dial-A-Tech engineers also do short-term on-site maintenance, inspections, training, start-up services and final systems adjustments and modifications on large capital projects. Industrial clients of Dial-A-Tech include Davy International, U.S. Steel, United Engineering, Armco, Power Safety International, SMS Engineering, Mesta Engineers and Weinman Pump. Slater estimates that he's worked on more than $3 billion of industrial projects over the past six years. Along with his commitment to the industrial side of his business, over the next six months Slater will also be answering Dial-A-Tech calls, recruiting and training phone technicians, organizing the data system, overseeing marketing, refining internal procedures and planning the national rollout of Dial-A-Tech. Dial-A-Tech's professional affiliations include membership in the Society of Automotive Engineers, Engineer's Society of Western Pennsylvania, Fluid Power Society, Pittsburgh High Technology Council and the Better Business Bureau. Background Dial-A-Tech was founded by Slater as an information service for consumers with questions on buying, selling and repairing new and used cars. An industrial sales engineer with 15 years of experience in process design and hydraulics, Slater's idea stemmed from the frequent calls he received from relatives and friends seeking his advice on everything from buying cars to home repairs. Armed with a good idea and $20,000, Dial-A-Tech -- 976-CARS -- was activated by Bell of Pennsylvania on Oct. 21, 1987. During the first three months of business, Slater's Dial-A-Tech attracted local and national publicity, including The Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Business Times and national trade publications Dial-It Business Biweekly and Infotext. He also placed advertisements in local newspapers and on radio. On Feb. 6, 1988, pressured by consumer complaints and negative publicity, Bell limited the access of 976 exchanges into two categories: 1) taped messages of a non-adult nature such as horoscopes and sports information -- 976 exchange; and 2) taped pornography and live conversation -- 556 exchange. Services that fell into the second category, including Dial-A-Tech, would be inaccessible unless requested in writing. Dial-A-Tech couldn't do business on a 556 exchange. On Feb. 16, 1988, Slater filed a complaint with the PUC charging that Bell sold him an obsolete service. A Dial-A-Tech representative said that in August 1988, Bell permanently shutdown live conversations on 976, effectively putting Slater out of business. Slater then secured legal counsel, appeared at PUC hearings and gave sworn testimony, wrote letters to state Rep. Allen Kukovich (D-Westmoreland), called the Information Industry Association, spoke with the media and doggedly pursued his case, a Dial-A-Tech spokesman said. By December 1989, Slater's family life was in shambles with a pending sheriff's sale on his home, and creditors and tax collectors circling, a company representative said. The spokesman said that the ever-resourceful Slater regrouped and built up the industrial side of the Dial-A-Tech business. He traveled the world starting up steel mills, repairing 100-ton presses, consulting on fluid power systems, training operators and supervisors on continuous casters. By December 1990, Slater had paid his creditors in full. With the start-up of American Telephone and Telegraph Company's (AT&T) Multi-Quest 900-number, pay-per-call service in 1989, Slater consulted with University of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Mellon University-affiliated Enterprise Corp. to secure venture capital for a 900 Dial-A-Tech service. The Enterprise Corp. assigned Slater an M.B.A. student to complete Dial-A-Tech's business plan. According to an article in the Sunday, April 9, 1989, Pittsburgh Press, director of venture development John Freyhof of the Enterprise Corp. believed Slater had a good thing going. He said Slater's idea "makes an awful lot of sense" and agreed with Slater that "Dial-A-Tech could have 100 employees in two years." But with the PUC ruling still pending, Slater and the Enterprise Corp. agreed to temporarily stop the search for Dial-A-Tech investors. Meanwhile, the Information Age was exploding and, in 1989, was a $450 million market -- $330 million of it coming from the dial-it market, according to The Wall Street Journal. In May 1991, PUC Administrative Law Judge George M. Kashi stated: "By placing Complainant Slater's Dial-A-Tech service in the same category as adult services and gab lines on the 556 exchange, Bell has made Complainant's service virtually worthless. ... and Bell was unreasonably discriminatory." Slater's industrial Dial-A-Tech business prospered and he moved his business from his home's garage to Keystone Commons in July 1991. Finally, on Jan. 7, 1993, the PUC ruled in Slater's favor based on Kashi's May 1991 opinion that Bell was "unreasonably discriminatory." An order was immediately written to reinstate Dial-A-Tech. But Bell's attorneys continued their arguments, which the PUC called "circular." On Aug. 23, 1993, Bell agreed to follow the PUC order. In a separate civil case against Bell on July 26, 1991, Slater filed for damages in the Court of Common Pleas, Westmoreland County, Pa., hoping to recover the initial start-up costs, advertising, lost revenue and legal bills associated with his terminated business. This case is still pending. According to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce's U.S. Industrial Outlook 1993, electronic information services grew 14 percent to nearly $12 billion in 1992. California-based Telemedia News and Views projects that the dial-it market alone will reach $590 million by year's end. -0- 11/18/93 /CONTACT: Carrie Sant of Dial-A-Tech, 412-823-4300/
CO: Dial-A-Tech; Bell of Pennsylvania; Bell Atlantic ST: Pennsylvania IN: SU:
DM -- PG009 -- 6101 11/18/93 14:11 EST