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Hide and Seek

US West's game: keep its service record hidden from public view while charging the public more money.

As far as US West is concerned, no news is good news.
The telephone monopoly is asking the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to deny public access to information on the number of delays customers are experiencing in getting new service, as well as information concerning the salaries it pays top executives. USWest has gone so far as to request that government regulators be required to view documents it decrees "confidential" in the company's offices only and that they not even be allowed to make copies or take notes on those materials.

Since US West has asked the PUC for a 20 percent hike in residential phone rates, the company's service record is coming under close scrutiny. But US West's September 13 motion for a protective order asks the PUC to declare that these documents are not covered under Colorado's public-records law. The company is particularly alarmed by requests that it release information on so-called held orders, delays in hooking up customers to new phone lines.

The only statistics on delays in new service come from US West itself--the telephone company marks all such data it gives the PUC as confidential, and the PUC makes no attempt to verify the accuracy of the information. According to USWest, 855 people had to wait more than thirty days for new service through the first seven months of this year; the phone company doesn't release information on how many people have to wait less than thirty days for a telephone line.

Many people trying to get new phone lines would say that US West has reason to cover up its service record. Denver's homebuilders have taken the step of filing complaints with the PUC about service delays.

"US West has been telling us for the past year and a half that held orders are under control and that it will be a non-issue in another six months," says Steve Wilson, spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Denver. "So far, that hasn't happened. They wanted to blame us for their problems. They told us they couldn't keep up because of the growth in the region. We built 20,000 units a year in the last two years. In the 1980s we were doing 35,000 new homes a year and there wasn't this problem."

Wilson says many local homebuilders now advise their customers to request new phone service at least thirty days before they close on a house.

Comments filed by US West in support of its latest motion portray a company rattled by the competition it will soon face. (While competition for residential customers is years away, other companies are already lining up to provide telephone service to businesses in Colorado.) US West claims that its reputation will be damaged if full disclosure of service delays is made. "US West believes that quality service is directly related to customer satisfaction and perceptions about the company," the company says in its filing. "It is not difficult to envision a competitor using this kind of held order information to imply that US West's network in metropolitan areas cannot serve all customers adequately."

The PUC defines a held order as any delay of more than one day in providing service. Since US West insists the information it provides the PUC on held orders is confidential, the agency says it can't verify those figures. However, the utilities commission has already fined the company $5.3 million for quality violations with regard to its service record through the end of 1995.

This past February the Denver Business Journal asked the PUC to release all information on the number of delays US West customers were experiencing when they requested new telephone service. US West objected to the release of the information, and the phone company and the Business Journal wound up negotiating an agreement under which US West agreed to provide the newspaper with a limited amount of information on held orders.

In June, Westword, in the wake of US West's request for a rate increase of $3 a month for residential customers, requested that the PUC release salary information on 200 US West executives who make more than $100,000 per year. The PUC ruled that this information, contained in a document known as "Appendix A," was a public record and should be released to the public. However, US West filed a complaint against the PUC in Denver District Court, arguing that releasing the information would violate its executives' privacy and make it easier for potential competitors to lure away high-level talent. District Judge Larry Naves sided with US West and issued a temporary restraining order that prohibited the PUC from turning over the information to Westword. The PUC is still pursuing that case in court.

Now US West wants to make sure it doesn't have to go to court again. The PUC denied the company's request to make government regulators view confidential documents only in US West offices but agreed to consider the company's motion that the documents in question should be exempt from disclosure to the public. The PUC will take public comments on US West's motion through October 4, and a hearing on the matter is set for October 9.

US West has had increasing problems with government regulators throughout its fourteen-state territory. Last week the Colorado PUC staff recommended that the phone company's request for a 20 percent hike in residential rates be denied. The staff rejected US West's claim that it was losing money on residential service. The Colorado commissioners will make a final decision on the proposed rate hike this winter.

If they deny the rate increase, Colorado regulators will join those in other states who have turned down US West's proposed rate hikes. Washington state regulators were so incensed by US West's plan to double residential rates that they ordered the company to slash the price of local phone service to just $10.50 per month. Many phone customers in Washington have experienced long delays in getting new service, and US West's service record became an issue there. In Iowa, the state utilities board also turned down US West's proposed 23 percent hike in residential rates.

US West has long claimed that residential telephone service is being subsidized by its business customers, who pay more than twice as much per line. However, many consumer advocates and government regulators dispute this claim and estimate that it costs the phone company as little as $4.42 per month to serve each home telephone line.

Ken Reif, director of the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel, has contended that US West wants to shift the cost of maintaining its entire system onto residential customers, who have no alternative to the phone company. Another official in the Office of Consumer Counsel has said the company intends to use "captive customers to raise revenue." And US West wants to fill its coffers, in part to meet the looming competition for business customers.

MCI and other companies are expected to offer lower rates to business customers than those currently charged by US West. Consumer advocates fear that residential customers will wind up making up the difference for US West in the resulting price war. And they're not heartened by pronouncements from US West officials. This past February, president and CEO Solomon Trujillo told a group of US West officials that the company's goal is to "improve net cash flow by $1 billion by 1998." He added, "I'm on a mission to generate cash."

To read related Westword stories, visit www.westword.com

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