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UTAH PANEL WILL PROBE US WEST BILLING POLICY

US WEST Communication's billing practices regarding inside wiring service contracts will be the focus of a Utah Committee of Consumer Service investigation.

The committee, which represents residential, small business and agriculture utility customers in proceedings before the Utah Public Service Commission, agreed to conduct the investigation after hearing concerns from Tim Funk who represents the Community Coalition of Utah. The coalition is an advocate group for low-income Utahns.Funk said he often works with low-income families to establish budgets. During one such effort he discovered that a handicapped person living in subsidized federal housing was being charged for the inside wiring contract even though he lived in a rental unit. Funk said that while the 69-cent monthly charge is minimal and might even be a "great price" for such insurance, it appears customers - especially those in rental housing units - are not being given the option to reject the service as required by the Public Service Commission.

Funk said the need for such a service is relatively low in newer buildings and there is a question of who should bear that burden - the landlord who owns the wiring or the person renting the unit. He said most subsidized housing is of newer vintage construction. Funk said he believes there was an informal agreement several years ago by the company against billing residents in subsidized housing for inside wiring service.

Funk and Kent Walgren, a deputy attorney general assigned to the committee, also raised the issue of whether US WEST is involved in a negative marketing strategy similar to that which has raised controversy in the cable television industry lately. They said it appears US WEST often begins billing customers for the service and puts the onus on the customers to contact the company and request the service be ended. Funk and Walgren both said they had to take that action when moving to new apartments. Both rejected the service when arranging new telephone service but both were billed for the service on their initial billing and had to contact the company again to have it removed.

Committee Member Guido Rachiele said he would like to see the service removed entirely from current billings and US WEST required to re-market the service. He said that would force the company to give every customer an opportunity to accept or reject the service prior to being billed.

Phil Bullock, a committee analyst who will head the investigation, said that issue will be addressed.

Jim Farr, a US WEST representative at the meeting, said one alternative for renters is to seek reimbursement from landlords when they are billed for telephone wiring services.