Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Hold, Please

Connections count.

In early January, US West filled a time capsule with tidbits about how the telephone had changed our lives. "In 1900," the company chirped, "telephones were considered luxury items."

But in certain parts of Colorado, where potential US West customers have been waiting weeks, months, years for service, telephones are still considered luxury items. If US West wanted to give future centuries a realistic snapshot of the current state of telecommunications, it would have stuffed that time capsule with documents revealing how much time we've spent on hold while US West fought regulators who wanted it to offer better service. It would have included paychecks it gave to lobbyists who swarmed the Colorado Legislature pushing SB 25, which would have deregulated all of US West's service except for first lines and 911 service, and who are gearing up for SB 25's resurrection and for a measure that would rid Colorado of that pesky Office of Consumer Counsel, the state's utilities watchdog. And it would have added Federal Election Commission filings showing how much the company has donated to those legislators, who still have two months to consider communications measures and listen to US West lobbyists, who make pro-gun groupies seem downright sweet.

But some arms can't be twisted, and that's why US West wants the OCC moved under the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates phone service in this state. State senator Ken Chlouber, who pushed SB 25, has claimed that moving the OCC from its status as an independent agency to a division of the PUC would save Colorado $4,000 a year. But OCC head Ken Reif argues that since its establishment in 1984, the OCC has saved Coloradans $130 million in rate cuts.

So it's no surprise that US West -- which promises its CEO, Sol Trujillo, more than that as a bonus for seeing through the $45.8 billion US West/Qwest deal -- wants the OCC silenced. And legislators, who know US West will take their collect calls (Bill Owens alone collected $10,400 in contributions from the company last year), will oblige -- if they listen to lobbyists instead of their constituents, who probably can't dial in, anyway.

But some critics aren't as easy to disconnect -- particularly the very plugged-in "Archibold, et al." These four retired utility regulators -- John Archibold, Harry Galligan, Edythe Miller and John Stuelpnagel -- are hardly retiring in their criticism of both US West and the PUC's oversight of the company. (Miller was a former PUC commissioner; both Archibold and Stuelpnagel were lawyers who worked for the PUC.) The group monitors the PUC's every move regarding US West and has made a few legal moves of its own.

In recent filings, Archibold, et al., complain that the PUC does not have full authority to penalize US West for its service -- specifically, its lack of service. PUC commissioners can only demand reparations for actual customers, which excludes people who've never paid a dime to US West, even though they've been waiting weeks, months, years for phones. The only way to secure justice for these would-be customers, Archibold, et al., argue, is to take the fight to district court.

And even when the PUC does demand reparations from the company -- for example, the $12.77 million fine the PUC spanked US West with in January for service-quality violations for customers who allegedly had phone service (or were paying for it, at least) through last April -- it's asking for the wrong amount.

On that single point, Archibold, et al., found themselves in momentary agreement with US West at last Thursday's PUC hearing.

US West wanted to postpone the $12.77 million in rebates -- which were to begin February 20 -- until it could study how the PUC arrived at that figure. "US West has devoted considerable resources to preparing specific reparations calculations that track the commission's formulae," the company stated in one filing. "US West's calculations indicate that the amount owing based upon the commissions' formulae is considerably less than the approximately $12.8 million in reparations identified in the Decision."

That's where Archibold, et al., and US West part company. Some members of this quarrelsome quartet were at the PUC the last time US West was smacked with a major penalty, in 1995. Using the same formula employed then, US West should be on the line for much more. Say, $162 million.

"The Commission found that USWC was, or would be, out of compliance with Commission rules a total of 2226 times during the year 1994, and ordered payment by USWC of 'reparations' in the amount of over $5 million," Archibold, et al., point out. "Testimony at [the] hearing in this proceeding established USWC to have been out of compliance 81,039 times during a 16 month period ending April 22, 1999." Using the 1995 PUC precedent that billed each violation at $2,000, that would translate to a $162 million bill this round -- with more to come, when transgressions through the last eight months of 1999 are factored in.

The PUC agreed to provide the documentation behind the $12.77 million figure this week, giving interested parties plenty of time to rip apart the math -- and, in the case of US West, make copies for dozens of lawyers and company execs whose combined fees and salaries no doubt exceed the amount of the penalty they are protesting -- before the March 9 hearing.

But even before that, the PUC may consider the request by Archibold, et al., that the commission go to court to secure the punishment US West truly deserves. At last week's hearing, the commissioners agreed to add to their March 1 agenda the possibility of discussing court action on US West's held orders and other service deficiencies.

"The Commission has addressed service quality issues numerous times over the past ten years, yet violations not only continue, they increase," Archibold, et al., note. "In each instance, a 'new remedy' is proposed and adopted. The number of violations in this proceeding is approximately 30 times the violations in Docket No. 94C-587T, commenced in November 1994. Even though approximately two-thirds of the violations in this proceeding address identical rules, the per violation 'reparation' assessment by the commission has plummeted from $2,000 per violation in Docket No. 94-C-587T, commenced in November 1994, to $151.26 per violation in this proceeding."

US West went to the February 24 meeting looking not just to pay less money in reparations, but for more time to get service for twenty people who'd been promised it long ago. "Extenuating circumstances," including construction problems or engineering challenges or right-of-way issues, made it too dang difficult for the phone company to comply with the PUC's instructions.

As of last April, these accounts had already been waiting well over the 150 working days that US West is allowed in which to provide service. Some had been waiting over two years, and one of the twenty orders dated back to 1995. In its request for more time, US West pointed out that it can't dig into frozen ground to lay cables -- but that ground wasn't frozen in summer 1999, or summer 1998.

"The company has squandered almost two full construction seasons," protested the OCC in response. "USWC claims that there are no facilities because it is costly or difficult to provide them. Taking these justifications to their logical conclusion indicates that USWC has no real intention of deploying these facilities."

Rather than spend the last several years engaging in such obfuscation tactics as the "Customer Not Educated" ploy, in which customer-service reps were supposed to confuse their customers as much as possible and target more affluent areas for faster service, the company could have worked to get the entire state up to speed. Not all the held orders concern hunting cabins up on Guanella Pass: The complaints are just as loud in Highlands Ranch -- even if those residents have to borrow phones to make them.

The PUC commissioners got this message loud and clear. Enough time was enough, they told US West. It's time to give these twenty people service.

And as for the rest of Colorado? Yes, it's a "pain," PUC chairman Ray Gifford acknowledged. "But universal service is their obligation to fill."

Unless -- and until -- US West convinces legislators otherwise.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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