Small business chamber fights phone deregulation

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – Legislation that would deregulate telephone companies will lead to higher phone bills for rural businesses in South Carolina, a small business advocate group said Monday.

The South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce estimates there will be rate increases of up to 115 percent for small businesses, which purchase service from 20 rural telephone companies in the state.

Under the bill, telephone companies with at least two wireless companies in the area would no longer be considered monopolies. As a result, the PSC would lose regulatory powers over telephone companies selling packages for different services, possibly leading companies to increase rates to catch up to the state average.

“There was no room in this debate for the consumer, especially small businesses,” said Frank Knapp Jr., president of the small business chamber. “We’re here to let those small businesses know that they’re facing potentially very large increases in their basic line rate in these rural areas.”

For example, the Fort Mill Telephone Co. could increase business one rates by 71 percent, and businesses using the Bluffton Telephone Co. may pay 115 percent more, according to the group.

Large rate increases could happen if businesses purchase services in those bundled packages, said Doug Pratt, an engineer at the commission.

“We would hope that the companies would not take advantage of this,” Pratt said, who said the commission would be “pleased if the bill went away.”

The bill has already passed the House and is awaiting debate in the Senate.

BellSouth backs the bill, saying it gives consumers more choices and better prices, and the Chamber agrees, except in the case of small rural businesses and cell phone use.

Knapp said cell phone companies are not competitors of telephone companies.

“There are too man features of a land line that can’t be offered with a cell phone,” Knapp said. “They are simply not legitimate competition for land lines and to declare that they are in order to get around the law and say, ‘Oh look, we’re not monopolies,’ is a farce.”

Rep. Harry F. Cato, R-Travelers Rest, believes the only competition telephone companies in rural areas will ever have is from cell phone companies.

As a bill’s sponsor, Cato said small telephone companies should be able to act like larger companies, like BellSouth.

“They can’t price themselves out of the market,” he said.

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