Phone service deregulation bill clears Senate Judiciary

by Jim Davenport, Associated Press

BellSouth and other telephone companies would get
a break from regulations that they say make it more difficult for them to bundle services and compete under a House bill that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. The bill affects nearly every BellSouth customer in the state and opponents say it goes way too far in clearing the phone company from state oversight.

The bill frees phone companies from seeking regulatory approval on service packages they sell. That bundling of basic phone service with features, such as call waiting, and add-ons, such as long-distance or Internet access, now is overseen by the state Public Service Commission.

“It goes way beyond any bill that’s been passed in the South and perhaps in the country in terms of deregulating” BellSouth, AT&T spokesman Gene Regan said. Hank Fisher, executive director of BellSouth’s South Carolina operations, said “this bill is largely a paperwork exercise.” But it’s also about money and marketing, with no clear public benefit, Elliot Elam, the state’s acting consumer advocate said. “I’m kind of at a loss to say what the benefit to the public is. All these things they’ve talked about offering they can offer now,” Elam said.

Fisher, who hopes to begin working under a changed law this summer, says it will make for fairer competition. Other phone companies now can see bundled service plans filed with regulators and react to them long before they get to the market. The bill’s supporters say that makes BellSouth less likely to cut prices. But upstarts in a deregulated telecommunications business are coming up with innovative service bundles and BellSouth is trying to keep up with them, not the other way around, said Bo Russell, a vice president for NuVox Communications in Greenville.

Competitors should look at and challenge BellSouth’s plans to prevent a dominant company from pricing its services at a loss simply to drive competitors out of markets, Russell said.

“They appear to be afraid of any regulatory oversight,” Russell said. Another part of the bill frees telephone companies from price regulation in rural areas as long as they have competition from a minimum of two wireless telephone companies. Elam said the bill is unclear about how widespread the coverage from those wireless companies would have to be in order to allow the traditional wired phone company to go without price regulation.

That’s going to be bad for businesses in those rural areas, said Frank Knapp, chief executive of The South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. The existing 21 local phone companies are regulated “because they are monopolies,” Knapp said.

“I challenge anybody to find me one business that’s willing to say, ‘I’m not going to use my land lines any more for my office. I’m going to use cellular telephones.’ Where are they? Who’s going to do that?” Knapp asked.

Wireless phones simply don’t provide the range of services businesses need, such as having an incoming call roll over to the next available line or fax machine support, Knapp said.

With just four weeks left in the legislative session, the bill moves to the back of a calendar full of bills likely to die from heavy opposition. Senate procedures will keep the phone bill from coming up for debate for about two weeks.

The priorities needed to be that “the public would be served first and then we serve everybody else,” but that did not happen, Sen. Bob Waldrep, R-Anderson said. Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, said he’s generally supportive of efforts to reduce regulation, but this is “taking away too much.”

There are consumer protections, Sen. Tom Moore, D-Clearwater, said. For instance, a service like call waiting that now costs $3 a month can’t increase to more than $3.15 under the bill.

Sen. Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg, said the bill is a step in the direction of “allowing the market to work.” Less regulation has brought down prices for long distance and broadband Internet services, he said.

Telephone service “competition is being impacted by our existing laws,” Ritchie said. Had the bill not passed Tuesday, Ritchie said it likely would have died.

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