A record-setting number of Washington customers are complaining about US West service this year, despite the telephone company’s promise to improve.
Complaints have been on the rise for several years, according to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, the agency that regulates telephone companies.
The commission could fine US West up to $1,100 per violation, but instead has opted to negotiate with the company on friendly terms.
That may change soon.
“What we are finding now is that US West has been fined tremendous amounts in other states,” said Marilyn Meehan, spokeswoman for the Utilities and Transportation Commission.
“And they are putting their resources in those states and that’s where the improvements are being made.”
In Washington, US West says it provides new service to most customers within five days.
Customers, however, remain unhappy. Last year, 1,308 customers complained to the Washington commission. Six months into this year, 755 customers already had called regulators to complain.
Meanwhile, in states that leveled big fines against the company - such as Arizona and Colorado - complaints are falling.
Most frequently, people complain about delays in new services. Customers in new subdivisions sometimes wait months for a telephone line. People seeking a second line in their home wait even longer.
Outages occasionally take more than a week to repair.
Customers who have called the company report that representatives are very polite, but have no answers to their questions.
While complaints mount, US West wants to nearly double residential rates in Washington over the next four years, from $12.75 a month to $21.85. Business rates would go down.
The commission staff will issue its report on that request Friday.
In all 14 states where US West provides residential telephone lines, regulators are getting increasingly frustrated with the company. They have banded together to write uniform guidelines and create uniform fines.
Those stricter guidelines should be ready in the fall. It will be up to individual states’ regulators to enforce those service guidelines.
In June, more than 3,500 US West customers waited more than 30 days to get new service. Washington residents accounted for 388 of those homes.
On top of that, 320 Washington customers complained to the commission about other problems in June, mostly breaks in service that last more than two days.
“It used to be that when your phone went out, a repairman was there within hours,” Meehan said. “Now, we often hear about cases where it takes days and even weeks.”
Sharon Matthews, spokeswoman for US West in Spokane, pointed out the company handled 38,200 requests for new lines in June in Washington.
“Ninety percent of requests are fulfilled within five business days,” she said. “Trouble reports average 1 to 2 percent of all of our access lines.”
Still, investigators are handling record numbers of complaints from residential customers, who often don’t know the rules telephone companies must follow.
The state requires companies to install new service within “a reasonable amount of time.” That could be six months for someone living on Mount Rainier, but should be less than two weeks for someone in an urban area, Meehan said.
When the telephone company gives a service date, it must notify the customer if it will miss that date.
Regulators also require telephone companies to restore a dial tone in two working days, barring a major disaster.
Many customers are finding that calling the Utilities and Transportation Commission speeds things up.
For three months, Anne Wellens hounded US West to install a second telephone line in her Sunset Hill home for a fax machine.
A week after she reported the delay to the commission, Wellens had her line.
“They came out on a Saturday to do it,” Wellens said.
The Rev. David Treybig got the same run-around. He wanted a second line in his Indian Trail home and couldn’t get an installation date. His new line was in a week after he complained to the commission.
US West officials agreed with the commission last January to reduce their number of complaints by 30 percent and their violations by 75 percent.
“That has not happened,” Meehan said.
When the numbers were counted for the first six months of 1995, the company was on pace to set a record for both complaints and violations this year, she said.
On top of that, the telephone company is consolidating its complaint staff to one location, at its headquarters in Englewood, Colo.
“We have grave concerns about that,” Meehan said.
Washington commissioners worry that if the people who handle complaints are all in Colorado, customers and regulators in this state will have a tough time getting a prompt response to problems.
US West officials promise that when their restructuring is complete - by the end of this year - residential service will be better than ever.
“A lot of the processes we were using were working, but they were very cumbersome,” said Matthews, the company spokeswoman. “Some of the new systems are not working the way they were designed to work. So the bugs are being fixed.”
The reorganization - which combined 500 customer service centers into 26 mega-centers - was necessary to prepare for inevitable competition, she said.
That competition will come first in the business market, where customers have been paying high rates to subsidize residential customers. That’s why residential rates need to go up, Matthews said.
“We can’t sit back and let competition come in and serve all of our business customers,” she said.
For the residential customer, competition still is years away, not a comforting thought for the hundreds of people disgusted with US West.
“I basically have no faith in their ability to provide me with what I want,” said Wellens, who waited three months for a second phone line.
“It feels like they are out of touch with their customer base. But if I were a big business, with lots of money, I bet I would not have had to wait three months to get my request filled.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: In the ringer