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Idaho eases rules for fixing phone outages

BOISE - Idaho’s land-line phone providers would no longer have to fix outages within 24 hours or be forced to give customers a month’s service credit, under a rule change pending at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

The Idaho AARP is decrying the change as a prime example of why Idaho needs a consumer advocate in its utility regulating process; Idaho is the only state in the west without one. “Had we not had a volunteer of ours bring it to our attention, we would have completely missed it, as have, I believe, the majority of Idaho consumers,” said AARP spokesman David Irwin.

AARP submitted comments protesting the rule change on May 31, the final day of a public comment period, more than a month after the IPUC had convened settlement talks with telephone companies and drafted the rule change. It was prompted by an application from CenturyLink, the state’s largest land-line telephone provider, and several related companies, for an exemption from the rule, which the company argued is obsolete.

“Today it is fair to say most Idaho customers also maintain a wireless connection that enables voice communication even when their wireline is out of service,” CenturyLink attorney Mary Hobson wrote in a a memo to the PUC supporting the change. “Restoration of wireline service, therefore, is no longer as important to customers as it once was.”

CenturyLink maintains it’s at a competitive disadvantage to wireless, cable and voice-over-Internet providers, because they don’t have the 24-hour fix requirement.

Rather than exempt the company from the rule entirely, the PUC staff convened the settlement conference, and negotiated a softened rule: Outages would have to be fixed within 48 hours, there would no longer be any requirement for a credit, and weekend outages could be fixed by the following Monday or Tuesday. In addition, the time limits would be waived in “extenuating circumstances” like natural disasters affecting large groups of customers, and a requirement for a report to the state if 90 percent of outages aren’t fixed on time was softened to 80 percent.

Washington has an existing rule that land-line phone outages must be fixed within 48 hours or customers get a $5 credit, said Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission spokeswoman Marilyn Meehan. Weekends don’t count, and if outages aren’t fixed within seven business days, customers get a month’s service credit.

Meehan said there is no move on in Washington to change that rule.

Gene Fadness, spokesman for the Idaho PUC, said AARP could have intervened in the CenturyLink case, and thereby become one of the parties invited to the settlement conference. “Any group can,” he said. “Then you’re automatically a party to the case.”

But Irwin said intervening is a costly and obscure process.

“This is again just one of those extremely complicated cases that really can tend to fly right under the radar screen - this is not even going to get a public hearing,” Irwin said. “From our end, this is a particularly tough deal for older consumers who have land-line phones and are much more reliant on them than any other group.”

PUC staffers did raise concerns about older consumers or those in isolated areas of the state without cell or broadband service; that’s why they supported a modified rule, rather than doing away with it entirely.

Idaho’s rule has been in place since 1993. With the public comment period now closed, public utilities commissioners will deliberate on the change and decide on the new rule within the next several weeks.