Longform

Bells Are Ringing

Page 2 of 5

Like everyone else, Stewart has been asking himself just what the problem was with US West. He believes a simple explanation can be found in the data that the phone company gave the state.

"We've had trouble getting US West to invest in their local telephone network in Iowa," says Stewart.

The data shows that the amount of money the company has spent on its telephone network in that state has been static since 1995, despite increased customer demand for new lines. In several categories, like underground cable installation and circuit equipment, the company's investment has actually declined.

It's a pattern that holds true throughout US West's territory.
In Oregon, the state Public Utilities Commission opened an investigation into US West's construction budget earlier this year after discovering that the company had canceled planned projects in 1998 that could have alleviated service problems in several Oregon communities. The commission acted after the U.S. Forest Service complained, saying its employees in several different towns were going without phone service.

"The company has obviously declined to improve service in some areas, and it's time to investigate what's behind their decisions to withhold investments and whether they're living up to their obligation to provide service in their territory," said Oregon PUC chairman Ron Eachus in March.

As it turned out, US West's investment in its Oregon network--as in Iowa--has been flat since 1996, despite the fact that Oregon is one of the fastest-growing states in the country. However, US West's profits in Oregon increased from $64 million in 1996 to $103 million in 1998.

Officials in other states report similar trends. "Their investment over time in the network has declined," says Glenn Blackmon, assistant director for telecommunications at the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. Although Seattle has boomed during the '90s--attracting hundreds of thousands of new residents in the last decade--Blackmon says US West has frozen spending on the network at about $300 million per year.

The story is the same in New Mexico, where some rural and suburban residents have been told that the only way they can get a phone line is if they pay US West $50,000 to cover the cost of adding space on the network.

"Between 1995 and 1997, there was a sharp decline in investments in telephone [infrastructure] in New Mexico," says Rich Weiner, assistant attorney general for the state. "In a lot of places, the infrastructure is exhausted. There's been a lack of facilities in some places for years."

US West is currently battling state regulators in New Mexico over their proposal to reduce phone rates by $5 a month because of the company's excess profits. Since the case is pending, Weiner says the figures on US West's investment in the network in 1998 have been marked confidential and cannot be released.

In Colorado, where the PUC is trying to decide whether to levy a multi-million-dollar fine against US West for delayed customer phone hookups and repairs since January 1998, regulators tell a similar story.

"While the demands on the network have been increasing, the investment has been decreasing," says Dian Callaghan of the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel. At the same time, consumer complaints and "held orders"--requested lines that the company is unable to connect--have skyrocketed. PUC data shows that the number of people waiting more than thirty days for a telephone has risen sharply over the last year, with 1,400 Coloradans waiting one month or longer for a phone line in March alone.

During the same period, US West's profits in Colorado have soared, with the company posting a profit margin of more than 12 percent.

However, while the phone company was unable to provide many Coloradans with a line, it was still concerned with their emotional well-being. People frustrated with delays are now transferred to a 1-800 call center known as the "Center for Customer Experience," where technicians trained in empathetic listening can feel their pain.

"I have to tell you--in the first couple of weeks, the response has been tremendous," Anne Larson, US West vice president of local network operations for Colorado and Wyoming, told the PUC last month. In just three weeks, employees at the center talked to 4,100 Coloradans who were facing delays in getting telephone service. ("I just hope you didn't have to spend too much money on consultants coming up with that 'Customer Experience Center' name," Gifford said.)

In response to Westword's request for comment for this story, US West supplied several written statements. The company notes that the large majority of service requests are filled promptly. "Through mid-year, Colorado customers have placed 1,543,405 orders for service," reads the statement. "Almost 97 percent of those orders were filled successfully by US West, despite extraordinary events, including six major cable cuts and major flooding in southeastern Colorado, which pulled technicians away from their regularly scheduled installation and repair jobs."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers