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Is there life after U.S. West?

Article by Rayna Bailey

Communications – May 1999 – Colorado Central Magazin

BEING DUMPED by a lover following a long-term relationship — that maybe wasn’t always a great romance, but after all those years was at least familiar and comfortable — is painful. When the dumping comes in the form of a Dear John letter, pain often is replaced with anger, frustration, and a fear of the unknown: What happens next? Will I get to keep kitty, the leather sofa and the Jimmy Buffet CDs?

And so it was recently when US West used a Dear John letter in the form of a press release to announce the end of its long-term relationship with customers in 18 Colorado exchanges, including Salida, Leadville, Alamosa, Buena Vista, Calhan, Crested Butte, Southfork, Gunnison, Fairplay, Meeker, Julesburg, Mesa Verde, Monte Vista, Oak Creek, Ovid, Yampa and Peyton.

Customers asked, what happens next? Will I still have a dial tone when I pick up the telephone receiver?

As a Custer County resident and former US West dumpee — the telephone company issued our Dear John press release in 1993 — I know what happens next: Nothing, really. At least nothing of great import. Customers in the aforementioned exchanges are now members of an elite group of telephone users soon to discover that life after US West is pretty good.

And yes, you will still have a dial tone.

The process of being dumped by US West is lengthy. Unlike a bored lover wanting to move on, the telephone company can’t just go out for cigarettes one night and not come back. Despite notifying Custer County in early 1993 that the love affair was over, customers’ romance with US West limped along until 1995, during which time the company provided continued phone service.

A watchful mother with a big stick — the government — is the reason US West can’t simply bail when it feels like moving on. Selling an exchange requires approval by both the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.

According to Barbara Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Public Utilities commission, “The PUC makes sure that any sale is in the public interest: Will the customers in those areas benefit?” She adds that the PUC also has the right to deny the sale if it doesn’t approve of the proposed buyer. “The PUC will only approve the sale if it’s in the public interest. US West will have to give reasons why it’s in the best interest of customers to give up these exchanges.” Until a sale is complete, “US West is under obligation to provide service,” she says.

Fernandez says that the last exchange sale by US West, which included Custer County, was approved because “for many people it was an improvement in service.”

INDEED, those of us in Custer County who may have been a bit edgy and unwilling to trust a new telephone service provider, quickly discovered that PTI Communications was as efficient and responsive to our needs as US West had been.

The romance was just blossoming, however, when customers received another Dear John letter of sorts: Notification that CenturyTel, headquartered in Monroe, La., had purchased PTI. Rather than being dumped again, customers learned that the only noticeable change was the name at the top of the monthly phone bill. Since 1997, CenturyTel has been working to upgrade phone lines and improve local service.

Due to its presence in this market area, of the 28 telephone service providers now operating in Colorado, CenturyTel, ranked number two behind US West, appears to be the most logical suitor to take over the 18 exchanges US West plans to dump. But at this time CenturyTel and US West are reluctant to give definitive answers.

“We certainly hope our acquisition teams are looking at purchasing those 18 exchanges,” says Mike Hudson, CenturyTel spokesman. “But, it’s not up to the phone companies, it’s up to the Colorado PUC. They set the ground rules of how the game is played.”

David Biegie, of US West’s Denver office, reiterates Hudson’s comments. “We can’t release company names yet. We are only reviewing companies that can provide services folks already enjoy. We can’t comment on how the bidding will play out.”

REGARDLESS OF HOW the bidding plays out and what rules the PUC sets forth, customers in the 18 affected communities will be a part of the action. The PUC’s Fernandez says, “We will hold public hearings prior to the sale.” When Custer County’s exchange was sold, representatives from US West, the PUC, and the potential buyer met with customers to share ideas such as what services the buyer — PTI — could provide and what customers wanted.

Biegie says that whoever the buyer is, improved telephone service is definitely in the offing for customers. “We’re not allowed by law to offer an entire package — long distance, moving data — we don’t have that freedom. Whatever company buys these exchanges will have the freedom to do it. We hoped to do it, but the government won’t allow us to.”

Just as customers in the 18 exchanges currently being dumped by US West can expect improved telephone service, they can expect more for their money. Hudson says rates will stay the same, no matter which suitor ends up taking over US West’s exchanges. “We can’t charge more money (for basic service) that’s regulated by the PUC. It’s $14.25 for a line not including tax and other things tied to the bill. Telecommunications is regulated. The PUC assigns exchange areas, sets fees, it’s not a typical American business. We still have a Mom that controls every step we take.”

With that watchful Mom keeping an eye on things, although US West has sent customers in Central Colorado a Dear John letter, the romance isn’t over yet. As Fernandez notes, “US West hasn’t even filed anything with the PUC yet. Potentially, it could be a very long time” before a sale is complete.

Rayna Baily writes for the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe, where she also serves on the school board.