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US WEST rate plan getting a busy signal

US WEST is mostly striking out in its attempts to increase its revenues across its 14-state territory.

The company has asked for revenue increases in Colorado, Idaho, South Dakota, Washington, Wyoming, Oregon and Utah. It won a partial revenue increase in South Dakota.But regulators in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming rejected US WEST claims that it needed more money. Cases in Washington and Utah are still pending.

"I see them in every state trying to cope with the Telecom Act and, oddly enough, in all the states where they've filed (rate cases), they've filed for a rate increase - which I would think in a competitive environment they would not be doing," said Joan Smith, a member of the Oregon Public Utility Commission and former chairwoman of the US WEST Regional Oversight Committee.

The committee, which is made up of regulators of states in which US WEST does business, meets twice a year to share information and try to work with the company on various issues.

What the committee has found is US WEST is proving to be the most obstinate regional Bell operating company when it comes to embracing competition.

"We've watched them challenge in every state every attempt the state has made to open up the market," Smith said. "I think it is a stark contrast to what Ameritech, for example, is doing, which is trying to come up with ways to comply with the Telcom Act of 1996 - albeit everyone is pushing and pulling as hard as they can."

The Telcom Act requires local telephone companies to open their markets to competitors. Competition was expected to lead to a choice of providers, lower prices and more services. So far, neither has materialized for residential consumers.

In Utah, the Public Service Commission will hear what residents of the state think about US WEST's requested $74 million revenue increase Thursday during a hearing at 10 a.m. in the Heber Wells Building, 160 E. 300 South.

If approved, residential telephone customers' basic monthly rates will increase $9, from $14.82 to $23.82 - giving the Beehive State the distinction of going from one of the highest rates in the territory to the most expensive (see accompanying chart).

The commission is expected to make a decision in the rate case by the end of the year.

But elsewhere, US WEST's requests for revenue increases have not been well-received.

- The Colorado Public Utilities Commission rejected US WEST's request to raise residential rates $3 a month or 20 percent in December, saying its analysis of the company's finances and service quality didn't justify a rate hike. US WEST also failed to prove a rate increase was needed to cover costs of competition, it said. And, it found no evidence that business rates subsidized residential rates.

- The Idaho Public Utilities Commission in August rejected US WEST's request for a $15.5 million revenue increase in its southern Idaho region and instead ordered the company to cut revenue by $327,000.

- In May the Oregon Public Utilities Commission rejected a US WEST request filed in 1996 that it be allowed to increase revenue by $23 million. Instead it ordered the company to reduce revenues by $97 million and refund another $1.02 million to its 1.2 million Oregon customers. US WEST filed a law-suit contesting the order, which is still pending.

At the same time US WEST is seeking to increase basic rates, it is enjoying windfalls from subscriber services like Caller ID and Voice Messaging.

According to US WEST Communications Group, the corporate entity that includes its 14-state telecommunications operations, use of these custom calling features reached an all-time high in the second quarter of the year.

Caller ID, for example, is used by 27.7 percent of US WEST customers, while Call Waiting is used by 38.9 percent.

"These services are priced hundreds of times above cost," Smith said. "They are making money hand over fist."

And in some other states where US WEST has not sought rate increases it is busy paying penalties for poor service. In Arizona and Minnesota, for example, the company has paid millions of dollars this year in fines for delays in hooking up new customers and being slow to make repairs during 1996.

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US West

RESIDENTIAL

State Were Requested Now

Arizona $13.43 none $13.43

Colorado $14.95 $17.85 $14.93

Idaho $10.11-$12.00 $16.38-$20.00 $16.10

Iowa $11.05-$13.05 $11.05-$13.05 $11.05-$13.05

Minnesota $13.96-$15.56* none $13.96-$16.85

Montana N/A N/A N/A

Nebraska $15.15-$15.40 $16.60-$16.85 $16.60-$16.85

New Mexico $16.16 none $16.16

North Dakota N/A N/A N/A

Oregon $12.80 $20.25 $12.80

South Dakota $14.45-$17.65 $16.55-$19.75 $15.05-$18.25

Washington $ 7.35-$10.50 $ 9.20-$13.50 pending

Wyoming $14.00-$29.65 $18.50-$36.50 $14.00-$29.65

UTAH $14.82 $23.82 pending

BUSINESS

State Were Requested Now PSC action

Arizona $33.03 none $33.03

Colorado $37.09 $35.39 $37.37 Denied

Idaho $26.02-$31.24 $21.80-$29.60 $21.80-$29.60 **Denied

Iowa $28.15-$32.15 none $28.15-$31.15

Minnesota $34.61-$46.22* none

Montana N/A N/A N/A

Nebraska $38.05-$40.55 none

New Mexico $51.27 none $51.27

North Dakota N/A N/A N/A

Oregon $32.00 $28.00 $32.00 Denied

South Dakota $26.35-$37.50 N/A $27.25-$38.40 Approved

Washington $25.00 $27.00 pending Wyoming

$18.63-$40.46 $22.00-$40.46 $18.63-$40.46 Denied

UTAH $31.72 $33.17 pending

* Does not include extented calling areas. Other figures do include extended calling areas.

** Denied, but OK'd rebalancing of rates.