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Nampa man renews
long-distance debate

Mike Gray of Nampa
Mike Gray of Nampa collected 9,000 signatures on a petition asking the Public Utilities Commission to drop long-distance charges between Nampa/Caldwell and Boise.

Chris Bouneff - IPT
     Pick up the phone, dial 1 plus a Boise number and let the charges begin.
     Phoning from Nampa and Caldwell to Boise has been a long-distance call since the days that Baby Bells divided Idaho into calling service areas.
     But consumers are calling for change as population growth philosophically and culturally shrinks the 17 miles between Nampa and Boise.
     Nampa's Mike Gray, a computer repair technician, has collected 9,000 signatures since a popular bridge service was disconnected in May. The service, Bridge the Gap, connected Nampa/Caldwell to Boise for 25 cents a call, but the state Public Utilities Commission pulled the plug because the company didn't pay royalties to US WEST for the use of phone lines.
     Gray's petition asked the PUC, which regulates local calling guidelines, to form a local area that includes Nampa/Caldwell and Boise. He presented the petition two weeks ago.
     "That's an indication that something needs to be done," Gray said. People want the simplicity of just being able to call and not having to worry about long-distance charges."

Page 4a

     At least from the number of signatures, it would appear consumers want a local calling area that includes most of the Treasure Valley. But if the PUC staff has its way, the valley would be the last area in the state to consolidate into one calling area.
     The reasons why are a story of need and money.
     US WEST, which is the local phone provider, wants to form a single calling area. But the company doesn't necessarily want to pay to replace its equipment to do it, according to spokesman Clint Berry.
     Other long-distance carriers, including AT&T and MCI, also fear lost revenue if the toll is eliminated.
     And the PUC staff says the Treasure Valley doesn't need local calls to and from Boise.
     The Nampa/Caldwell and Boise area ranks last out of 100 potential phone routes the PUC's Linn Anderson studied as candidates for consolidation from long-distance to local toll.
     Ranking higher were calls such as Blackfoot to Pocatello because Blackfoot residents depend on the larger city for shopping, medical care and some government services, Anderson said. Nampa and Caldwell residents have those services locally, he said.
     Connection from Melba, Wilder and Parma to Caldwell also ranked higher than Nampa/Caldwell to Boise.
     "The need wasn't that great," Anderson said. "And now having said all that, it's almost inevitable that it will be a local call between Nampa and Boise some time in the future."
     That's becausee US WEST does see some profit from change if issues of compensation can be settled, Berry said. The company wants to expand service for its customers, Berry said. And, Anderson adds, forming a large local calling area would give US WEST a regional monopoly.
     But the company would have to raise its basic rates to offset lost long-distance revenue, which could upset some consumers, Berry said. And the 100 other long-distance providers that Idahoans use may also want compensation.
     "If you deprive them of that long-distance toll, that causes some problems," PUC spokesman Gary Richardson said. "They're not going to say, 'OK, That's fine.'"
     The issue is complicated enough that the PUC has studied it since June 1993 when the commission announced it would set guidelines to help determine which areas should have expanded local calling.
     The commission finally held hearings on the issue two weeks ago, and a decision isn't expected for at least several months.
     Even then, there's no guarantee that the PUC will change phone service in the Treasure Valley.
     "At this point, it's unlikely you'll find extended area service between Nampa/Caldwell and Boise," Richardson said.
     However, Anderson speculates that deregulation could beat the PUC to the punch if commission members don't act. Bills moving through Congress this year could increase competition for local phone providers.
     Instead of just US WEST, Treasure Valley consumers could have their choice of phone companies for local calls.
     One way new companies could attract customers is to expand local calling areas to include the entire Treasure Valley, Anderson said.
     "I think that's what's happening in the communications field as it gets more competitive, assuming we can get competition in here for local service," Anderson said.
     But competition could be three to five years away, he said.
     Until then, as long as gas prices stay low, it might be cheaper to drive to Boise than to spend a few minutes on the phone.

Reprinted by permission of Idaho Press Tribune Note: article retyped in HTML for better readability.
Sep 3, 1995 - Front Page & 4a



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