Controversial changes made by the Utah Public Service Commission in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber County telephone service a decade ago are still provoking residents and causing headaches for phone company officials.
Most recently, residents in northeast Layton have protested because they can't call Salt Lake City without paying a long-distance charge. They say adding a new prefix, 771, is an opportunity to provide them the same service as other Layton residents. Those residents can call areas served by the four downtown Salt Lake City switching offices - extending south to about 33rd South.Richard Jones, spokesman for the residents, said, "Basically our position is that because the rest of Layton has this, we should have it. . . . In the long term, given the nature of public utilities and phone service, it ought to be toll-free between Brigham City and Payson."
Layton residents have asked the Utah Consumer Services Committee to represent their petition before the Public Service Commission. US WEST officials, who are waiting the outcome of the petition, say that the appeal shows the decade-old order has made Wasatch Front residents expect more service than is available in most metropolitan areas.
The committee is taking a wait-and-see position for now, hoping that ongoing talks between the group and US WEST will resolve the issue without the need for committee involvement.
"We have an unusually large calling area," Nelson said noting that it is unusual for residents in other metropolitan areas to have toll-free access to two large cities - such as Layton and Kaysville residents have to Salt Lake City and Ogden.
While some 1,600 Layton residents petitioning for change see it as a "me too" issue of equity with their Layton neighbors, Salt Lake area residents are likely to view it with less enthusiasm.
If the changes were made, the Layton residents would have to pay about $3.50 more a month for the service. Salt Lake residents would have to pay between 5 and 10 cents a month more, Suzanne Nelson, US WEST community affairs manager, said.
"Where do you draw the line? Do we end up with state-wide toll-free calling and telephone rates no one can pay? Wherever we draw the line someone on the other side says `me too,' " Nelson said.
While unfamiliar with the Layton petition, Public Service Commissioner Ted Stewart said that residents who want extended area service must follow rules adopted by the commission four years ago.
Residents in areas who want additional service must have signatures from 50 percent of the residents where there are fewer than 100 residential lines or from 15 percent in areas with more than 100 lines. They must also prove that 15 percent of the non-petitioning and petitioning residents call each other's area once a month. Residents in both petitioning and non-petitioning areas must agree to pay increased rates for service.
Fairness of the service is still a concern to regulators and some Davis County residents. For example, Farmington residents are included in the Ogden and Salt Lake phone books and can call Murray, but not Ogden without paying a long-distance fee. Bountiful residents cannot call Ogden, but live a similar distance from Ogden as do some Layton residents who can call Salt Lake City.
"Considering the amount of increases that we have had in our phone bills, it seems ridiculous that we are not getting extended coverage. I think it would be fair if we could call Ogden, Salt Lake County and Weber County," said Max Forbush, Farmington City manager.
Stewart, a Farmington resident, says that regulators must consider fairness to all phone customers, particularly those on fixed incomes. Nelson also questioned whether customers in Murray and Salt Lake City appreciate subsidizing Davis County service that they might rarely use.
"There are a lot of residents in Farmington that maybe make only one or two calls a month into Salt Lake or Murray. They are paying $6 to $7 a month for that privilege that they don't use. On the other hand, there may be businesses or individuals that spend all day on the telephone into Salt Lake. Yet they are avoiding that and paying the same amount as the widow that doesn't make any (calls)," Stewart said.
That same philosophy figures into Stewart's opinion about the suggestion made by Jones to create Wasatch Front toll-free calling. Such a plan is not likely to gain much acceptance with the PSC.
"It (Wasatch Front toll-free service) is possible, but the concern the commission has and I have personally is that some people benefit greatly from extended area service and some people don't benefit at all." Stewart said.