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US West criticized over local rule

ICG Communications says the Baby Bell is sabotaging its ability to operate in Colorado and will file a complaint Monday.

A telecommunications company trying to break into US West's Colorado local phone market will file a new round of complaints with regulators Monday, charging that the Baby Bell is sabotaging its ability to operate.

ICG Communications, which offers local telephone, long distance and Internet services in several states, says US West hasn't invested in enough equipment to allow rival companies' subscribers to complete their calls consistently.

The result, ICG officials say, is that their customers often are unable to complete calls to US West customers. The failure puts their business at a disadvantage, they say.

"Right now US West customers are getting superior service," said Barry Zahn, ICG's senior vice president for Colorado operations. "When our customers call a US West company, often all they get is a fast busy signal."

ICG controls about 50,000 lines in Colorado, a tiny fraction of the near-2.5 million total state lines. Its telecommunications business has focused heavily on selling to high-profit business customers, a strategy that has irked US West.

But Zahn said his company can't fill all the orders for service it has sold, because of the limitations of the US West network-bridging equipment. ICG had asked that US West allow overflow calls to use the Bell network, to avoid the current bottlenecks, but Zahn said the company refused.

"We're going to file our public complaint with the PUC Monday," he said. "That's the first day we legally can, and we'll be right there on the steps when the commission opens." The company will ask for an expedited hearing, hoping to get reliable access to US West's network soon, he said.

U.S. West officials declined to comment specifically on ICG's impending complaint, but said they are doing their best to gauge and match their competitors' genuine needs.

"One of the things that we have experienced in general is that a lot of companies have given estimates of demand predicting they'll get 30 to 40 to 50 percent of the market," said Jerry Brown, a US West spokesman.

The company can not make investments to fulfill all these predictions, Brown added. "Collectively that would make up about 1000 percent of demand."

This isn't the first time ICG has complained to regulators about US West, nor will it be the last. Zahn said the company is in the process of preparing another complaint, this one accusing US West of overcharging ICG for facilities to install network equipment. Baby Bells are required by federal law to lease this space to their rivals.

Three other companies have also filed complaints against US West for issues related to competition in the local phone market.

ICG's complaint may be as much political statement as a direct means to an end, however.

A spokeswoman from the Colorado State Public Utilities Commission said complaints of this kind take months to be reviewed, appealed and acted on by the commission and the regulated companies. Even if ICG was to prove successful, the commission likely wouldn't rule until spring or summer, the spokeswoman said.

In the meantime, Colorado state regulators and US West are close to signing a legal settlement that would make the telephone company liable for a $900,000 fine if it doesn't complete at least 98 percent of calls.

State commissioners have yet to endorse this agreement, which also covers a long list of other U.S. West quality of service features. But once they do sign, the company will be responsible for quarterly reports on its performance, and subject to large fines for failing to meet the standards in the settlement.