To most people, having their phone service "cut off" means simply that they didn't pay their bill. Not to Bruce Kronberg, who lives in a modest house along an isolated stretch of highway northwest of Fort Collins. A little over two weeks ago a worker for the state highway department literally cut Kronberg's phone line, rolled it up and threw it away.
As highway worker Dutch Siefkin saw it, US West's phone line was a hazard and an eyesore. It wasn't held up by a telephone pole or buried in the ground; it was unrolled, like a thick black snake, across Kronberg's lawn, over a barbed-wire fence, under a highway bridge and over a stream until it hooked up with the main buried cable about 500 feet away. And, as Siefkin points out, "phone lines aren't supposed to be draped over a fence."
When it approached the highway, the over-the-ground phone line also violated state highway right-of-way laws, which require buried or suspended cables near roads. Siefkin says for two years he unsuccessfully tried to get US West to fix the problem. So he did it his way.
As communications policy goes, the incident is strictly low-voltage. Yet it does highlight one of the snags in deregulating the telephone industry. For the past several years the state's Public Utilities Commission has received numerous complaints from rural phone users who charge that US West is slow to respond to their needs. (As of last month more than 2,000 Coloradans were waiting for new phone service; two thirds of them are rural customers.)
In theory, one way to improve service is to open up the phone market to competition. Last year the Colorado Legislature did just that. Yet, even with generous subsidies, what telephone company in its right mind would want Bruce Kronberg's business?
Kronberg, who until recently worked in a department store warehouse, lives just south of Virginia Dale, a tiny ranching community scraping the Wyoming border. His house sits on the east side of the only major road in the area, U.S. highway 287. The buried phone cable lies on the west side of the highway. Kronberg's house is the only one on the phone line.
"US West isn't going to make any money on Bruce's business, unless he's a real heavy long-distance user," says Keith Walden, Kronberg's neighbor. "But I guess that's part of being in the utility business."
According to Siefkin, the phone cable to Kronberg's house used to be strung by a telephone pole, but two years ago a car accident toppled the pole. Called to restore service to the house, US West resorted to a temporary solution: It laid the cable across the ground. The temporary solution lasted two years.
"Two years? I find that hard to believe," says US West spokesman Jeff Garrett. "Real hard. But I'll check."
Garrett admits that there was a telephone wire unrolled across Kronberg's lawn but says it has been in service only since Kronberg moved into the house last May. "A line may have been there before, but it wasn't live," he says.
Walden, who has lived a hundred yards down the road for about two years, remembers things differently. "That is absolute bullshit," he says. "The reason I know that cable was not dead is that I used to call my neighbor, George Cummings, who lived there before Bruce Kronberg, on that line. US West is telling an outright lie."
True enough, says Cummings, who now lives in Wyoming. "It's a real interesting story," he begins.
"We moved there about eight years ago. We first had an aerial line, with one of those iron wires, a party line. When we called Fort Collins they could hear us, but just barely. It was a lot of fun. Anyway, they eventually buried the cable along the west side of the highway, and ran a wire overhead to our house. About two, three years ago, though, a doped-up trucker come down the road. He missed our mailbox, but he wiped out thirty feet of fence and the telephone post.
"The phone company replaced that. But six months later we came home to find the wire broken again. A trailer truck coming through was too high, and it snagged the wire as it drove underneath. So US West sent this temporary worker out, and he ran the wire along my fence, under the bridge, through the stream and into the buried cable. It must have been 500 or 600 feet of wire.
"They were going to replace it. But it lasted and lasted. It got to where my cows were walking on it under the bridge, so I moved it up on some rocks. Then some marmots began chewing on it. And that's how it was when we moved in May."
Meanwhile, back at the highway department, Siefkin says he was trying to convince US West that its loose line was a road hazard, and illegal to boot. "But I guess they just didn't want to go to the expense of putting up a new line," he recalls.
To be fair, it wasn't just any line the highway department was asking for. The state discourages the phone company from using telephone poles when it installs new lines along roadways because they present a danger to drivers who veer off the road. Instead, the state strongly encourages buried phone lines. In Kronberg's case, that means US West would have to bore a hole underneath highway 287 for a single customer. That's expensive.
Still, Siefkin says, US West "just kept saying they'd take care of it, they'd take care of it." Several weeks ago, after hearing the same promise one too many times, Siefkin decided to take the phone company at its word.
He and his supervisor talked. They concluded that if the problem was indeed taken care of, as the phone company suggested, then all that telephone wire lying on the ground was not needed. "So," Siefkin says, "I cut it off the fence and removed it."
Unfortunately, he didn't tell Kronberg, who recalls, "Suddenly my phone just went dead."
That was two weeks ago. Since then, US West has restored Kronberg's service--by running another line across his yard, over a fence and under a bridge. "Generally we make repairs within 24 hours," says Garrett, the phone company spokesman.
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He adds that, in the scheme of things, Kronberg's unstrung, unburied phone line represents a relatively minor problem. "As long as people have service, that's the main thing," Garrett says. "We're upgrading people from multi-party lines to single-party lines. This was just a little cleanup work."
Still, Garrett acknowledges that US West has applied for, and received, the necessary state permits to drill a tunnel underneath the highway so the phone cable can be buried properly. He says the work was scheduled to begin December 16. (Reached on December 18, Kronberg says it didn't.)
Kronberg says he can only guess at why it took US West two years, and an angry highway worker, to clean up the wires. "When you can do new subdivisions with hundreds of customers," he says, "I guess one doesn't matter.