'I cannot afford to wait any longer for phone service, as this is an expected part of running any business.'
FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The Regulatory Commission of Alaska is investigating whether Alaska Communication Systems is violating any rules by refusing to build new phone lines in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
ACS announced earlier this month it had abandoned plans to install new copper wire phone lines. The utility said it will offer wireless phones instead to home and business owners seeking new service in areas without existing lines.
The decision was made because an order allowing rival General Communications Inc., or GCI, to lease ACS lines would put the utility's new investment at risk, company officials said.
The commission began its investigation last week because of consumer complaints. Copper wire lines allow Internet and fax services while wireless offers fax service but not the Internet.
''I cannot afford to wait any longer for phone service, as this is an expected part of running any business,'' wrote Paul Welton, a Fairbanks businessman who wants to build an apartment complex.
Commission spokeswoman Agnes Pitts said the panel will decide if ACS can offer a wireless phone in place of a copper wire phone line. The commission approves and enforces rules under which most state telephone utilities operate.
The forced GCI agreement, completed in October, allows GCI to lease ACS equipment in Fairbanks and Juneau and then offer telephone service via the leased lines.
If ACS installs new lines, then those lines can be leased by GCI, therefore eliminating any chance for ACS to get a return on its investment, ACS President Wes Carson said.
That gives GCI an unfair advantage, he said. Several lawsuits are pending in state courts to stay the agreement.
Dana Tindall, GCI's senior vice president of regulatory affairs, said ACS's refusal to install phone lines is another stab at keeping competition out of Fairbanks and Juneau. The two companies have a separate interconnect agreement for Anchorage.
Some customers aren't happy.
Welton, the Fairbanks businessman, said he began two years ago seeking 50- to 100 phone lines for his apartment complex and initially was promised copper phone lines. The company told him recently about its decision to offer wireless, he said.
ACS's wireless service is inefficient and ineffective for the upscale apartment complex he is planning, he said.
''It's a multimillion dollar project,'' Welton told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''I've already got a couple of (construction office) buildings, but we don't have any phones.''
Ron Illingworth, who lives off Eielson Farm Road near Moose Creek, said he was assigned ACS's wireless phone service even though he tried to get a regular phone line since moving there four years ago.
''This is just the excuse of the day,'' Illingworth said.
Frank Biondi, ACS's general manager for Fairbanks, said he was aware of Welton's and Illingworth's complaints. He declined comment about Welton's situation but said there were other reasons why Welton wasn't getting phone service. Biondi contended those weren't ACS's fault.
''He's well aware of those reasons,'' Biondi said.
Biondi said he has been working with Eielson Farm Road residents for years in trying to provide service.
It would cost $700,000 to install regular phone service for that area, he said. Residents would have to pay a portion of those costs, but no one has agreed to that, he said.
Biondi said his company anticipates growth and tries to plan for service, but the GCI agreement has stalled any plans.
The Regulatory Commission's Pitts said telephone utilities are required only to provide voice-quality lines. That will change, however, on Feb. 13, 2002, when those lines have to support such data transmissions as faxes and the Internet.
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