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Qwest targets long-distance service for state in 2002

By Bob Freund

freund@postbulletin.com

Local phone carrier Qwest expects to succeed in its drive to offer long-distance service throughout Minnesota this year.

Qwest Vice President John M. Stanoch said a study of the Qwest system is being completed, with a review by state regulators possibly as early as May.

A formal application is likely this summer, and "we expect to re-enter the long-distance market late in the third quarter," Stanoch said. Stanoch, who is the company's top executive in Minnesota, spoke Wednesday at the annual meeting of Rochester Area Economic Development Inc.

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The timing will depend on the results of a test of company systems now nearing completion in Minnesota and 12 other states. Conducted by Qwest under the eye of an independent auditing firm, it will gauge Qwest's performance in opening its local telephone markets to competitors. For example, it will assess how easily a customer can switch from Qwest to another phone carrier, said company spokesman Bryce Hallowell.

The former Baby Bells, now called Regional Bell Operating Companies, must meet standards set by the Federal Communications Commission before they can offer long-distance service.

Another key to winning long-distance rights is the backing of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the state's phone systems. "The PUC knows Qwest primarily by what our service is in Minnesota," Hallowell said.

Stanoch also said after his RAEDI speech that Qwest now has achieved "substantial compliance" in service measures monitored by the PUC for 2001. By meeting seven of eight requirements, Qwest avoided potential state penalties of between $25 million and $35 million, he said.

The PUC-enforced benchmarks range from trouble reports on phone lines to the amount of time it takes for a Qwest operator to answer customer service calls

In a Wednesday announcement, Qwest said its Minnesota service data for the just-ended fourth quarter were the best results in more than six years for residential and small-business customers. For example, 95 percent of all service outages in the state are repaired in 24 hours or less, according to its figures.

Stanoch also told RAEDI members and about 100 guests that Qwest most likely will not be able to extend its DSL service in Rochester right away because of costs, saying the corporation is "hunkering down from a very difficult year." However, Rochester is high on Qwest's list for further improvements when finances loosen up, he said.

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