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Telecoms to lawmakers: Lift cold-call restrictions

John Miller, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Idaho land-line phone companies contend a 13-year-old law forbidding them from cold-calling existing customers is crippling their ability to market high-speed Internet.

Frontier Communications, headquartered in Minnesota, and Louisiana-based Century Link Inc., are pushing to revamp Idaho's 2000 law to halt unwanted phone solicitation. The law restricted phone companies from calling existing customers who requested telemarketing peace.

At the time, long-distance carriers such as U.S. Sprint pushed for that restriction, arguing Idaho's main phone company at the time, US West, would otherwise enjoy the unfair advantage of continuing to contact its 500,000 Idaho customers to market services.

Frontier and Century Link insist those long-distance wars are history — and that they'll use any new calling privileges appropriately, to not anger customers they want to buy faster Internet. The telecoms also argue that Idaho's cable companies, their fiercest competition for Internet services, aren't bound by the same restrictions, which tilts the playing field.

"We're basically asking to be treated like any other commercial service provider," said Jack Phillips, a Frontier spokesman in Burnsville, Minn., whose company has 100,000 rural customers in northern Idaho. "It's especially important where we're making high-speed Internet available in new markets, and we're limited in not being able to inform customers by phone."

Frontier has hired a former Idaho legislator, Rep. Jim Clark of Hayden, to help convince legislators to go along.

After learning of Frontier's and Century Link's plans, however, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden's office raised concerns consumers won't be happy to see long-held privacy protections pared back.

There are about a million numbers on Idaho's "Do Not Call" list, said Brett DeLange, chief of the attorney general's consumer protection bureau that helps enforce phone solicitation laws.

"Of those million numbers, our office has never had one person call us and say, 'We'd like to be called some more,'" DeLange said. "People didn't take the time to sign up on the 'Do Not call' list to have the phone company now call them during their dinner hour."

The Idaho Cable Telecommunications Association, representing cable companies including Cable One and Time Warner, meets Tuesday in Boise for the first time to discuss the phone companies' deregulation gambit, said the group's lobbyist, Ron Williams.

In 2000, Williams worked for U.S. Sprint, where he helped promote the initial prohibition on phone companies' marketing to their customers. At the time, Idaho residents were among the many Americans deeply frustrated with telemarketers who often called multiple times nightly, interrupting dinners and bedtime stories with pitches to sell everything from magazines to home siding.

"I'm sick of telephone solicitation," then-Rep. Ken Kunz, R-Pocatello, said during a debate in the 2000 Legislature.

Still, passing Idaho's "Do Not Call" law wasn't easy, primarily because lawmakers couldn't decide whether phone companies like US West, with a customer base encompassing the bulk of Idaho households, should be allowed like other businesses to continue marketing by phone to existing clients.

In 1999, the Idaho House decided they shouldn't, while the Senate sided with phone company lobbyists. It took until late in the 2000 session before a bill was passed — this time with the restriction on phone companies.

But 13 years passed, and the remnants of the phone companies — Frontier's Idaho business emerged from its purchase of Verizon's rural landlines in 2009, while US West became Century Link — say the competitive landscape has been transformed: Most everybody has a cell phone, people are canceling landlines and the bitter long-distance battles are distant memories.

Meanwhile, they have new products like high-speed Internet to bundle, to preserve customers and remain viable.

Ed Lodge, Century Link's lobbyist, said phone companies would use new freedoms responsibly.

"We certainly don't want to have people frustrated with us," Lodge said. "We just want to be able to reach out and tell people we've got 40 megabytes of speed in their neighborhood."

DeLange said nothing's stopping them from doing it by mail. Frontier's Phillips said that's not good enough.

"It's easier to target customers in a specific area — easier to reach them individually by phone — than by putting a message on customer bills," Phillips said.