To the customers of utilities like US West have the right to know how well the company is serving the public? And with the local telephone market starting to open up to competition, should consumers have access to the service records of all local telephone providers?
These questions have come to the fore in Colorado during the past few years, as US West has failed to keep up with the state's surging population and delays of more than a month in getting new telephone lines in some areas have infuriated both residents and businesspeople. As stories have circulated of small businesses going broke for lack of a phone line, Westword and other newspapers have asked the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to release the information it collects on US West's service record.
The huge telephone company has fought most of those requests, even though Colorado's Open Records Act makes it clear that the public has a right to see most documents on file with government agencies. US West has claimed this information is a "trade secret" and could be used against it by potential competitors. The company has agreed to release statistics on the number of customers who have to wait more than a month for new phone service but has refused to say how many people have to wait less than thirty days for a telephone line.
Now the PUC is preparing to make a decision once and for all as to what information on the service records of regulated utilities (including US West, Public Service Company and new competitors for local telephone service, such as MCI and AT&T) should be "presumed to be public." The PUC staff has proposed that all information on consumer complaints and delays in new service should be released, but US West is challenging that proposal, saying the information on service delays could be used against it by its rivals.
"If you look at the retail industry, most people would be amazed if Wal-Mart sat down with Kmart and said, 'We'd like to show you our financial information and share that with you,'" says US West spokesman David Beigie. "It's something we do and nobody else has to do."
Not surprisingly, US West's competitors are amused by the company's effort to withhold information on its service record.
"If I were in their shoes, I'd probably be saying the same thing," says Tom Dixon, a manager with MCI in Denver.
However, Dixon quickly adds that MCI also wants to protect its own "trade secrets." He says his company is still determining its position on the proposed regulations.
"We support as much public information as possible," he says. "But we'll protect our own financial information."
The PUC staff believes the opening of the telephone market to competition makes it imperative that consumers have the right to know the performance records of the various telephone companies.
"This is a big issue for us, because if the information is marked confidential, customers won't be able to compare service-quality standards among the companies," says Barbara Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the PUC.
A public hearing on the proposed new rules will be held this week. While the staff has made its recommendation, the final say rests with the PUC's three appointed commissioners, who are expected to take up the issue early next year.
Consumer advocates say US West's campaign to conceal much of the data it submits to the PUC is a violation of the spirit of the open-records law.
"The main purpose of the public-records act is to allow the public to look over the commissioners' shoulders as they make their decisions," says Dian Callaghan of the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel. "Now with more and more competition coming in, US West is arguing that more and more information should be kept confidential. We want the exceptions [to the open-records act] to be narrowly construed."
Fernandez says the proposed new rules were prompted by several legal disputes over the last few years that revolved around the question of whether the public had a right to know US West's track record in providing service. Several newspapers requested information on "held orders," the phone company's term for delays in hooking up customers to new phone lines. US West resisted most of these requests, and the PUC found itself involved in an endless series of hearings over whether the information should be made public.
According to Fernandez, US West never regarded the held-order information as confidential until its service record became a public issue. "US West never used to mark the service information confidential," she says. "Then, when the news media started doing stories on their service problems, they started marking it confidential."
Since present policies allow utilities to label virtually any of the information they hand over to the PUC as confidential "trade secrets," the agency wants to have clear guidelines about what exactly is public information.
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"We're trying to follow the public-records act and put people on notice that this is how things will go forward," says Fernandez.
But US West makes it clear that it will resist any effort to require full disclosure of its track record in Colorado. Beigie insists that the information US West now releases is all the public needs to know about the company.
"We believe the figures we make public provide a good accounting of where we are in terms of performance," he says. "It allows people to have a good snapshot of the kind of service we're providing."
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