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State fines Qwest for poor service.

Byline: Sherri Buri McDonald The Register-Guard

The Oregon Public Utility Commission on Thursday said it has slapped a $215,000 fine on Qwest Corp. for poor service last year, mostly in rural Lane County towns.

Qwest has paid similar fines each year since the 1999 Legislature established special service standards. That law did away with the PUC's tight scrutiny of Qwest's rates. Instead, it capped Qwest's basic phone service rate and gave the company more latitude to raise prices for add-on services. As part of the deal, Qwest agreed to build five fiber-optic rings in Oregon to improve service.

Under the plan, the PUC fines Qwest if it fails to meet service levels.

Most of the 2003 penalty - $175,000 - stemmed from inadequate service in the Lane County communities of Mapleton, Lowell and Marcola. Callers in those communities too often encountered fast busy signals or recordings telling them all circuits were busy, PUC chairman Lee Beyer said.

Other fines were $10,000 for network blockage and $30,000 for failing to meet sales office access standards in September and November. The standard requires a live person to answer calls to the business office in 20 seconds, 75 percent of the time.

Under its agreement with Qwest, the state doesn't pocket the fines. Instead, it channels the money back to Qwest, which must spend it to improve service in the lagging communites, and possibly in other communites with poor phone service, such as Blue River in Lane County.

Customers "paid with the inconvenience, and what they'll get in return is the opportunity to get better service," Beyer said.

Denver-based Qwest has paid $1.3 million in service quality penalties in the past three years, Beyer said. Still, Beyer said, the company's overall service in Oregon has improved.

For example, he said, standards for clearing trouble reports and making sure customers had access to Qwest's repair centers were met each month in 2003.

"Overall, we're pleased with the performance of our network," said Qwest spokeswoman Stacia Dahl.

Under the 1999 law, 2003 was the final year of the PUC's special power to fine Qwest for inadequate service.

The agency said it will continue to press its own separate service quality standards on Qwest. But the PUC won't seek to fine Qwest because that would require court approval, a process the agency never pursues, Beyer said.

"It would cost the commission more to go to court than the amount of the fine," he said. Instead, the agency's chief tool will be to publicize instances of Qwest's poor performance, and try to embarass the company into making upgrades, he said.
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Title Annotation:Government
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 5, 2004
Words:436
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