July 09, 2006

Holding the Line

Most everyone passing through Westfield using a cell phone has had the experience of losing a bar or two.

The husband of a friend of mine does a lot of outdoor work in town and she finds herself usually amused but admittedly sometimes annoyed as her spouse attempts to remedy the situation by raising his voice considerably. She tells him to stop yelling and wait till he gets home however more often than not he persists but we know that that is futile.

We have found ourselves living our lives “wired”. Cellular phones, PCs, lap tops, Blackberrys, answering machines, cordless phones and the like, we are in an age of “immediate communication gratification”. We can’t seem to wait to get our message out or learn who has been trying to get their message to us regardless of where we are, who we are, and in some cases who is picking up the tab.

Union County government has armed it’s employees to the hilt with land lines, cell phones, Blackberry’s, Nextels, pagers, PCs, home internet service, via cable, dial-up and DSL with the bill being fully footed by the taxpayers.

One Verizon bill, in May of 2005 for Freeholder phone service and charged thru the county Communications Dept. showed $459.69 for long distance charges alone. It is no wonder that the Board of Chosen Freeholders voted affirmatively to have the county telephone service audited to uncover areas that the county can save money.

Certainly a step in the right direction but there is however one little thing missing from the plan. The firm conducting the audit, XTEL Communications, of Marlton, will only be looking at the “land lines” service and equipment and not the cellular phones or Blackberrys.

On Election Day 2004, I spent the morning outside the polls in my hometown.

I shared my station with a representative of the opposing party, a county employee who works in the Division of Information Technology. She indicated that her party candidates on the ballot for the local election had to work and since the county employees had the day off, she was available to greet the incoming voters working the polls on their behalf.

At that time Blackberry’s were the newest gadget in the form of wireless communications and I watched as she took one in and out of her pocket all morning. Not having actually seen one before I felt compelled to inquire about it.

She related that the county had given it to her “for work” as she happily checked Emails, sent communications, and answered calls all while stationed outside our borough hall.

Later that day, I pondered the Blackberry. Since it was for work, and she worked for the county and the county was closed for business, who was she communicating with?

I can only speculate, but I later learned that a national campaign was using just this type of technology to heavily monitor and direct election day GOTV activities.

One of the fastest growing companies in NJ, XTEL according to their website, has been providing business customers, municipalities and townships nationwide with telecommunications services such as long distance, toll free numbers, local service and DSL. Contracted by the county they will only get paid if they find ways to save money, their fee is 35% of the savings realized. This is very nice but still does not address what can be a very large expense and one very easily and widely abused, as evidenced last year when someone racked up the over $400 bill.

Seems it is time to bring in an outside company to audit this area of communications as well. A company that can review the entire shebang and be capable of crafting an all-comprehensive package deal too good to pass up.