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Owners of Utah answering services are banding together in an attempt to ensure that US WEST Communications does not have an unfair advantage when it begins offering voice messaging services later this year.

Voice messaging is a service that enables users to call from touch-tone phones to receive their personal messages and other communications.The small-business owners fear US WEST could garner a sizable technological and advertising advantage if the Utah Public Service Commission fails to impose appropriate safeguards.

During a meeting with the Utah Committee of Consumer Services, the owners welcomed US WEST's entrance into this area of telecommunications and expressed hopes that the commission would agree to leave voice messaging and answering service unregulated and open to competition.

The major fear expressed Friday is that US WEST's involvement in other aspects of telephone service, especially basic residential and business service, could give the telephone giant an unfair edge in customer contacts. They want assurance that US WEST would not be able to use customer contacts concerning basic service to pitch the company's voice messaging service. And, there is the question of whether competing answering services would have equal access to automatic call transfers and other technological features that would easily be available to a US WEST-owned answering service.

"We think this would put us on a very uneven playing field if US WEST has these advantages and we don't," said Jim Payton, All West Communications.

Kent Walgren, a deputy attorney general assigned to the committee, said many of the issues raised address fair trade and antitrust arguments that are not usually handled by the committee. He suggested the group discuss those concerns with the attorney general's office and see if attorneys assigned to those issues are interested in intervening at a pre-hearing conference scheduled for June 18, 9 a.m., before the Public Service Commission.

Jim Farr, representing US WEST, said many of the issues raised are already under review by his company and he believes many of them can be resolved without a commission hearing.