State officials are optimistic that phone lines in south Routt will be backed by some kind of quality service plan when U S West sells some of its rural exchanges.
The Office of Consumer Counsel and Citizen's Communications are negotiating this week on the terms of a customer service plan the state group wants in place before Citizen's buys telephone lines in 17 rural communities in Colorado. Phones lines in Oak Creek and Yampa are included in the deal.
To avoid going to court, Citizen's agreed to meet with the Consumer Counsel's office this week and hash out a service plan similar to what U S West offers in the areas. The two sides were to appear before a judge Tuesday to solve their dispute but an agreement to negotiate put off that hearing.
The customer service or "service quality" plan would detail what customers can expect from Citizen's and the monetary consequences Citizen's would face if it doesn't live up to its obligations under the plan.
"We're trying to cut a deal," said Ken Reif, director of the Office of Consumer Counsel. "We want to be sure that we can be satisfied with the service quality plan."
U S West had a service quality agreement with the Public Utilities Commission that required the company to reimburse customers with portions of up to $15 million if they didn't receive the minimum level of service required by the commission. That was an incentive for U S West not to forget about its lower-profit markets in rural areas.
Citizen's Communications announced that it was going to buy the 45,000 rural phone lines in Colorado last month, but the company wanted to do it without a plan similar to U S West's.
"The issue is not that we weren't willing to adopt a service quality plan," Citizen's spokeswoman Martha Alcott said. "It's the financial obligation that was involved with the plan."
U S West is able to afford $15 million to underwrite the plan. However, Citizen's is a smaller firm that's focusing on rural markets in an attempt to provide better service than other companies, Alcott said. Because of that, the company can't afford the $15 million, she said.
"We have service quality requirements in a number of states we operate in. But the financial obligation isn't like it is in Colorado," Alcott said.
The Colorado sale is part of a $1.65 billion deal in which Citizen's is acquiring 530,000 access lines in 14 states, mostly in rural areas.
One reason U S West had such an expensive service quality plan was that, historically, the company has had a hard time giving proper service in rural areas while competing in urban markets.
Since Citizen's is not competing in an urban market, company officials believe that they will be able to provide better maintenance to lines and possibly introduce better services for customers, Alcott said.
If the sale goes through, Alcott said her company will begin evaluating the exchanges to see if they can feasibly afford high speed Internet connections. But all that is dependent on how well this week's meetings go.
"If an agreement isn't made then we'll have to go back to a hearing," Reif said.