August 6, 2001 was going to do it all. A child of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the utility reseller was going to provide local and long-distance telephone service, Internet access, cell phones and even electricity to consumers.

But like so many eager telecommunications and Internet start-ups,'s array of repackaged services didn't seem all that essential to consumers. The company has filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 13 and is continuing to serve customers, although recent court filings indicate its condition may be weakening.

The company has about 70,000 customers in the eastern United States. Besides facing the possible loss of their telephone service if ceases to operate, they also face the loss of personal information stored in their customer files under a petition filed by the company last week.

In an "emergency motion," asked the bankruptcy court to allow it to sell some of its assets to raise cash so that it can continue operations. Among those assets are its customer lists.

The Massachusetts Attorney General filed to block the action, saying the company is in violation of federal and state regulations as well as its own privacy policy. hasn't bothered to tell its customers about its problems. Its Web site contained no mention of the filing as of last night. Instead, a new Web site -- -- is sounding the alarm.

"Adequate consumer notification and protection of privacy should be of first importance here," said Richard Sayers, editor of "That's why the Web site has been launched. The site informs Essential customers of the bankruptcy, concerns being expressed by government and consumer groups, and advises subscribers on emergency planning for phone services in the event of a disruption of service.

Consumers worried about long distance service getting cut off or being offered rate plans less favorable than current plans have several options. Long distance calls can still be made without a regular long distance carrier, or by dialing around an existing carrier:

  1. Call toll-free 800, 888, 877 or 866 numbers. Toll-free numbers can be dialed direct even without a long distance carrier.
  2. Use a 10-10 "dial around" plan. 10-10 plans work from most residential phones even without a long distance carrier. objectively compares rates and fees for 14 different plans.
  3. If 10-10 plans don't work on your phone and the person or company you want to call does not have a toll-free number, use a toll-free dial around plan or virtual calling card. These types of services can be purchased over the phone or online, with no need for an old-fashioned plastic card.

For those consumers with local phone service, options may be more limited. One emergency idea is to have a mobile phone available as a back up to make important calls. If that is not practical, it may be wise to switch local service providers as soon as possible, Sayers said.