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Regulators force US West to open up

The Colorado PUC orders US West to open its networks, giving rival ICG Communications the green light to sign up customers.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission ordered US West to open its networks to a competitor today, breaking a logjam that had prevented rival ICG Communications from signing up new local phone customers in some areas.

ICG , an Internet and telephone company trying to break into the Colorado local phone market, complained to regulators early this week that US West was undermining its expansion efforts. The Bell company was dragging its heels in creating links between ICG's customers and its own network, making it difficult to reach US West customers at peak times, ICG officials said.

The company asked regulators to force US West to install the new equipment more quickly, and to allow ICG's traffic to pour over onto the Bell's own overflow network when needed.

In its ruling today, commissioners sided with ICG, ordering US West to treat its competitor's traffic the way it treats its own, routing it into an overflow system if necessary. The preliminary order will be in force while ICG's full complaint goes through the review process.

"The commissioners said they thought it was very important to send a signal that US West could not use any delay in our system to hurt their competitors," said Barbara Fernandez, a commission spokeswoman.

ICG is one of several competing telephone companies hoping to eat away at US West's dominant local phone market share in Colorado.

It has filed or is in the process of filing several other complaints against the baby Bell, charging that it has been slow to install equipment, and has overcharged competitors for facilities needed to connect to its network.

Of the complaints, today's ruling bears most directly on ICG's ability to complete customer's local calls. The company could not add new customers until the Bell installed new equipment in some areas, officials said. Even existing customers were often got busy signals or "network full" messages when trying to call US West users, ICG officials added.

For its part, the Bell company says ICG wanted too much, too fast.

US West itself does forecasts six months in advance, and orders equipment on this basis, said spokesman David Beigie. ICG told US West about its expansion plans in June, started adding customers in August, and then complained when there wasn't enough capacity, Beigie said.

"This decision sets a bad precedent," said Beigie. "If ICG does a poor job of forecasting their demand, US West subscribers shouldn't have to pay for that." The Bell company would appeal the commissions' ruling before it goes into effect at the end of Friday, Beigie added.

But the commission's emergency ruling may have a shorter half-life than ICG officials expected.

Beigie said that US West had finally received the equipment need to set up network links in the areas identified by ICG as problems. "Now that we have the [equipment], we'll be able to handle those requests as soon as next week," he said.

ICG officials said Wednesday US West officials had not yet told them that the equipment had arrived, or that their order was ready to be filled. The company will route traffic onto the Bell company's overflow network when needed until the equipment is actually installed, said ICG executive vice president Cindy Schonhaut.

The Commission's order applies only to ICG traffic. But the Bell company and regulators are in the midst of finalizing a quality-of-service settlement agreement that will force US West to complete 98 percent of the calls placed to its customers or face quarterly fines.