But in practice, the much-touted and pricey Message Center contains an inherent flaw Pac Bell tries to keep hidden from subscribers: During peak use, if too many calls come in at once, Message Center stops rolling phone calls over into the phone company's recording device and the un-attended (or busy) phone on the other end continues to ring and ring and ring.
"We have no control over the number of people who'll call at a given time," says Keith Epstein, vice president of legal and external affairs with Pacific Bell Information Services (PBIS), the division of Pac Bell that runs Message Center.
"There's always the possibility that some calls won't be answered," Epstein says.
That's something Pac Bell doesn't tell customers until they receive their Message Center contract in the mail.
Because Epstein won't say how many phone calls are ignored by Message Center during peak usage, I conducted my own telephone experiment by plunking down $6.50 a month for the service (plus an installation fee of $19.95). From work, I called my home phone frequently during the periods Pac Bell says are busiest -- around noon and 5 pm. Most days the system captured every call; some days it got eight or nine of 10; once it missed two calls out of four.
For telephone subscribers who need a reliable message service for business reasons, Message Center is a mess. Prospective clients calling at noon might hear only a ringing phone and assume they have reached a fly-by-night operation.
Here's how the Message Center system works -- and doesn't work. Suppose you subscribe to the service and someone calls when you're out. After a pre-determined number of rings, the call bounces to a central switch for your service area (there are about a dozen service areas in the city). The central switch then tries to route the call to the system's main voice-mail computer in Pleasant Hill. But the central switch only tries once. If all lines to the computer are busy, the system gives up trying to route the call. The caller never gets your voice mail: The phone just rings in your empty apartment.
Or, if you're on the line at the time of a call and the system is swamped, the caller gets a busy signal instead of your voice mail. In either case, it's as bad as having no voice mail at all.
Calls to retrieve messages compete with incoming calls for space on the same lines, so Message Center is busiest around noon and after 5 pm because that's when many customers call to check their messages, says Jim LaFollette, marketing director at PBIS.
The number of missed calls also depends on how heavily loaded the system is in your neighborhood. According to Pac Bell, my service area (the Mission) had outgrown its lines and more lines were on the way. In the meantime, the odds of missing calls were worse in my area than normal.
"Capacity is everything in this business," says Epstein. "You build enough capacity to provide an acceptable level of service .... Anything more gets you diminishing returns."
Pac Bell monitors system activity and knows, or can accurately estimate, how many calls are ignored at peak times. But the company won't share these statistics or say how many ignored calls is enough to warrant adding more lines to an area.
Pac Bell's lack of candor doesn't end there, either. When I first inquired about what I thought was faulty Message Center service, a customer-service representative suggested several possible causes but never mentioned capacity problems. The second rep misled me. "When the lines are busy, switching [to voice mail] takes longer," he said. Only after persistent inquiries did Pac Bell acknowledge that ignoring calls was part of the system's design.
LaFollette insists that it is company policy to admit the potential for ignored calls -- if a customer asks. And Pac Bell stresses that the system is complex and that not all ignored calls are caused by capacity overflow. Missed messages are also caused by system crashes (which happen fairly frequently), bad lines and so forth, the company says.
Pac Bell could retrofit the system to acknowledge when demand has exceeded capacity by giving incoming calls an "all circuits are busy" signal like the one you often get when calling Mom long-distance on Christmas Day. But Pac Bell says that alter-native is too expensive. There may be a simpler reason for dismissing the idea: Adding an "all circuits are busy" notification would alert customers to the system's limitations -- and Pac Bell's determination to run the system on a tight budget.
For the record, consumer groups aren't fielding many complaints about Message Center. And Pac Bell doesn't appear to be violating any rules. Unlike basic phone service, voice mail is considered a "competitive service" and there is almost no regulation of how, or how well, the service must be performed. Users can always switch to an outside vendor for phone mail, but today nobody can compete with the "message waiting" feature, which interrupts the dial tone to indicate the presence of a message.
If you're a Message Center customer and wondering if your calls are being ignored, here's what to watch for: If you receive a busy signal when calling in for your messages, your area is probably overloaded, and incoming calls might not be answered.