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CUSTOMERS SLAM US WEST SERVICE

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The information superhighway seems more like a rutted dirt road full of detours for thousands of prospective US WEST Communications Inc. customers.

From Arizona to the Idaho Panhandle, in rural and metropolitan areas, they complain about waiting not just days but months for basic telephone service. When they call US WEST, they contend they get a bureaucratic runaround and busy signals."Their service isn't worth two hoots," said Arizona Corporation Commission spokesman Jon Poston, whose complaints have jumped from about a dozen a year to 100 to 200 a month between January and June.

"The telephone company keeps telling us they are very, very concerned about the coming days when they are going to have head-to-head competition," he said Thursday. "If they really have competition come along and their performance is anything like it's been, they're going to get their lunch eaten."

US WEST spokesman Ron Dulle said more than 95 percent of customers get service when they want it and more than 50 percent get repairs within 24 hours.

But the company admits it has been difficult to keep up with demands triggered by the booming population growth and by customers who want additional lines for home businesses, computer modems and other reasons.

"We have had some problems in trying to meet all the service demand that's been taking place in our region," said Dave Banks, chief corporate spokesman who is based in Arizona. He said the places that have been hardest hit have been Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

"I'm not trying to apologize for the company. I think it's important to acknowledge that there is a situation we're trying to address."

The company is adding financial and people resources to ease problems, he said.

In Colorado, US WEST's new-line installation is up 34 percent this year, and was up 27 percent in 1993, Dulle said. In Arizona, US WEST access-line growth was up 5 percent last year, the highest rate since the mid 1980s, Banks said.

In addition, the company is consolidating 560 customer-service centers into 26 centers in 10 cities, which has compounded the problem.

"We upgrade our network and make our investments as prudently as we can where we know the growth will be," Dulle said. "Growth has been even beyond predictions in the past two years."

On Wednesday, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation into US WEST Communications in wake of consumer complaints. Similar investigations are under way or under consideration in Arizona, Montana and Iowa.

In most states, regulators set standards that require utilities to respond to consumer requests in predetermined time periods.

In Colorado, the PUC received 915 calls in the fiscal year that ended June 30 from people who could not get phone service when they wanted it, including nearly one-half who waited more than 90 days, said agency spokeswoman Barbara Fernandez. In the previous fiscal year, PUC complaint calls totaled 688.

Recently, the commission has handled 10 to 20 calls a day from customers who complain they get a continuous busy signal when they call US WEST.

Last week, a PUC receptionist tried to contact US WEST by calling every hour. She managed to get through once, said Fernandez.

"We're hearing all these horror stories," she said Thursday. "We're seeing it is a statewide problem."

The stories are similar in other states.

"This commission is very concerned," said Kate Whitney of the Montana Public Service Commission. "We are monitoring them monthly. We will probably have some kind of formal proceeding to look into this before the year is out."

In Arizona, Carolyn Longo called US WEST about phone service in January when her family began building a home in Cave Creek, about 30 miles north of Phoenix.

A company official told her to call two weeks prior to moving into the home, she said. But, when she called in April, the company said it would take 60 to 120 days to build facilities so service could be provided.

Longo contracted for cellular telephone service because she has a 7-year-old son with medical needs, but it didn't work properly because of the mountains around her home.

One day after a story about her problems appeared in The Arizona Republic, Longo's telephone was hooked up.

"I kept calling them and calling them, and no one would talk to me," she said this week. "They just were the coldest people."

Regulators in Montana, Colorado and Arizona said the other utilities have kept pace with the growth.

Some observers speculate the problem lies more with US WEST's focus on building its infrastructure for the information future.

"Part of it is there is a tug-of-war inside US WEST for their capital budget, and the state is coming up on the short end," said Ron Binz, director of the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel.

Dulle denied the allegations.

"That's an easy accusation to toss out, but the facts are we have increased our investment in this state over 45 percent, which is probably larger than the population growth," Dulle said.

Poston said he wasn't sure what the problem was, but "a failure is a failure."

"Someone in the top management somewhere simply failed to recognize their responsibility as a monopoly utility and totally ignored their commitment to that," he said.

Banks said the company remains committed to its customers. "In no way would we lose our focus on our customers today," he said.

Poston said the commission had seen some improvement in the past two weeks after it required US WEST to set aside about $8.5 million to solve delayed service problems and improve service in rural Arizona. The money was part of a sale of rural telephone exchanges.

The Englewood-based US WEST Communications serves 14 states: Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.