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4 hours of outcry at US WEST request

The three-member Public Service Commission listened for nearly four hours Thursday to Utahns who came forward to belittle, rather than praise, US WEST and its proposed $9-a-month hike of residential phone rates.

Utahns complained about the lack of a consistent dial tone in Hooper, Weber County, and about how disabled residents living on $430 a month may be forced to give up telephone service altogether if the increase is approved.People worried aloud about the windfall the phone company may experience if rates are increased and then frozen at the same time telecommunications costs are declining. And they asked pointedly why it's cheaper to make a long-distance call from Park City to New York than a call from Park City to Salt Lake City.

"We think that the real reason that US WEST wants to raise residential rates is so that regardless of what happens with competition the company will not lose any significant source of revenue," said Betsy Wolf, of the Salt Lake Community Action Program. "We must ask the Public Service Commission to be extremely careful in its deliberations and, if anything, to err in favor of the consumer."

The commission now has until the end of the year to decide what to do with US WEST's request for more money. The company started out asking for $85 million in additional revenue and has since whittled down the sum it says it needs to $70 million.

It is proposing raising most of that money by increasing residential phone rates. The prices set by the commission will be frozen through May 2000, although US WEST has until next March to ask for minor adjustments in its rates.

The commission agreed not to officially close the rate case hearing until Oct. 17 to give residents more time to send in letters or e-mail messages expressing their opinions on the proposal. Letters may be mailed to: Public Service Commission, 160 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84111. Letters may also be faxed to 530-6796. The commission's e-mail address is (pupsc.dacord@state.ut.us).

Ted Smith, US WEST vice president for Utah, defended the company's rate request Thursday by pointing out that the cost of service has declined $6 a month since 1987.

"No one likes to pay more for services, but in the environment in which we're operating and in light of financial results, it's important that rates be increased," he said.

Smith also tried to discount allegations that the rate hike and US WEST's financial contributions to the 2002 Olympics were connected.

The $25 million the company plans to donate is being drawn from a marketing fund; money in the fund is from profits received throughout US WEST's territory, not just in Utah.

But some residents at the hearing said the company could have chosen to put that money to other uses, like improved service. And they said that if the company gets a rate increase and then rates are frozen as costs fall, it will have more money available to finance its Olympic contribution.

During Thursday's testimony, only two people spoke in favor of raising telephone rates: a woman who said more money might help US WEST fix its problems, and the director of the Utah Information Technology Association.

Peter Genereaux told the commission rates should cover cost, which would entail lowering business rates and increasing residential rates.

Most people objected to US WEST's campaign for more money.

"It is as if a basketball player who repeatedly fouls out of the game says to his coach that all he needs to play fair is more money," said Pete Ashdown of Xmission Internet during his comments about the high prices US WEST wants to charge for digital line service. He suggested the commission consider "punishing" US WEST by ordering it to drop the cost of such services 30 percent and residential rates by 10 percent.

Vickie L. Flake of Centerville, who represented herself and the Utah Council of the Blind, didn't buy US WEST's argument that after years of declining costs it suddenly needs an 80 percent price increase.

"What happened to our planning there?" she asked. "I also have a hard time looking at this rate of increase on individuals who can't go shop for a cheaper carrier."

Harvey Byrne said he pays more phone service than for electric or gas service combined. "High tech is more expensive than all these low-tech utilities," he said - and there's little he can do to cut costs on his phone bill, unlike the gas or power.