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ANCHORAGE - Alaska Communications Systems leaders last week responded to complaints about the company's refusal to install new copper phone lines in some neighborhoods throughout the state.
The four-hour hearing at the Regulatory Commission of Alaska's Anchorage office was the first public opportunity ACS had to explain its new policy - one that has outraged some residents from Fairbanks to Homer who claim it has left them without adequate phone and Internet service.
Wes Carson, president of Anchorage-based ACS, said his company cannot afford to lay new copper phone lines in every instance when its competitors could then lease the wires at a fraction of the start-up costs and lure away customers.
The Regulatory Commission considers ACS the "dominant carrier," requiring the phone company to build and maintain phone lines where it operates.
ACS is evaluating whether it will install lines in new subdivisions on a case-by-case basis. It also is asking developers to sign agreements requiring them to pick up part of the tab, Carson said.
Some developers are not signing. They claim ACS is asking them to pay too much. Others say it is the phone company's responsibility to pay for the cable, not the builder's.
In cases where ACS is not laying copper lines, it is using a wireless system known as Telular. Wireless is cheaper than copper to install and offers the same basic phone service, but Internet speeds are much slower, according to ACS.
The Regulatory Commission is investigating whether wireless is a viable alternative to copper cable. The agency has not said when it will decide on that and related issues.
While the hearing last Wednesday focused on allegations that ACS refused to install new wires, some people also accused the company of not expanding phone lines in existing neighborhoods.
Several people told the Regulatory Commission they want to see ACS do a better job of working with customers, beginning with returning their calls.
Fairbanks businessman Paul Welton said it has taken more than two years to get a phone line to his property, where he plans to build an apartment complex. Perhaps most frustrating in his quest for service was trying to open a dialogue with ACS.
"There is something criminal about the way they're doing business when you don't get a call back," he said.
Carson said ACS is improving its customer service and will use the feedback to make sure ACS representatives are responsive.
Carson said the controversy over new phone lines in Anchorage stems in part from the deregulation of the local telephone market in 1997.
Two years ago, ACS bought the Anchorage Telephone Utility, as well as phone companies in Fairbanks, Juneau and more than 70 other Alaska communities. ACS remains Anchorage's largest local phone company, Carson said, but the local market has drastically changed, with General Communication Inc. and AT&T Alascom claiming 37 percent of the customers.
The Regulatory Commission continues to treat ACS like a monopoly, he said.
Carson said Anchorage customers are paying the same phone rates they paid eight years ago, although the cost of living has increased.
Carson told the Regulatory Commission the complex rate structure, both for customers and competitors, must be overhauled if his company is to have a chance at making money in Anchorage.
In Fairbanks and other parts of the state, he said, rates must also be raised because it costs more to build new lines in rural areas.
The problem is only going to get worse, he said. GCI is moving ahead with plans to offer local phone service in Fairbanks and Juneau in the coming months.