New rule could mean increased local-call areas in Northwest Colorado

Telephone calls between Craig and Steamboat Springs or Hayden and Oak Creek could no longer be long distance, if the state hears enough support from the communities affected.

The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decides whether to expand local calling areas if a certain minimum call volume is met. PUC spokesperson Terry Bote said that means a resident must make an average of four calls per month between the long distance exchanges in question and at least 50 percent of the customers in those exchanges must make an average of two calls per month between the two exchanges.

"That keeps one large business with a large call volume from skewing the total," Bote said.

Bote said those criteria are about to change.

"The commission could allow for an alternative path," he said. "Communities could show convincing evidence if they don't meet the minimum volume. I know Routt and Moffat counties have been very vocal in saying they're unified and need connection."

Bote said a "community of interest" needs to be proven, which can include needs shared by schools, healthcare, business and others.

"Currently, the call volume doesn't meet the criteria, but if a community of interest can be proven, under the new rules, the local calling area could be expanded."

Bote said the change in the PUC rules won't be effective until the end of October, so a deluge of letters supporting local calling area expansion isn't necessary, yet.

"Your local government leaders are keeping in touch with us, and they'll have to put together a petition," Bote said.

"Anytime you can expand the local calling area it's going to have a significant economic benefit to the owner of a small business," said Mitch Bettis, a member of the Craig Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Committee and publisher of the Craig Daily Press. "As the number of businesses continue to grow in Moffat County, a positive change like this will have a dynamic impact on the viability of businesses in the region."

Routt County Commissioner Ben Beall said the county supports that.

"If that's what we have to do, I'm sure Routt County would be happy to do that," Beall said.

There's no schedule for public meetings on the issue of expanding local calling areas, but Bote said Steamboat Springs would definitely be a site for one.

Sue Birch, a member of the Steamboat Springs Economic Development Council, said it's important for the business community to have a presence at any public meetings on the issue.

"The EDC and the big entities need to come forward," Birch said. "If our community says we are an economically unified area, we could forgo long distance charges."

Bote said resident customers would carry the same weight as businesses. But he repeated that the key to the alternative method, where calling volumes aren't met, is that the petition has to come through a governing body.

Beall said there's a good chance of successfully getting the PUC to include Routt and Moffat counties as one local calling area, if the changes to the process are made.

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