By James D. McWilliams, The State

The cost of business phone lines could rise quickly in rural areas if lawmakers approve a bill pending before the state Senate, an advocacy group for small businesses said Monday.

The bill would reduce state regulation of local phone companies for many customers. Under the bill, several small, rural phone companies could raise their rates to statewide average prices, even if their current rates guarantee a profit. There would be a requirement that two cellular companies are in the same market as the rural company.

Frank Knapp, president of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, said Monday that the bill would let some rural phone companies raise business rates between 19 percent and 115 percent to meet current average statewide prices.

That could be devastating to small businesses, Knapp said.

“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,” he said.

For example, the Fort Mill Telephone Co. could increase business line rates by 71 percent, and businesses using the Bluffton Telephone Co. might pay 115 percent more, the group said.

John Bowen is a lawyer for the S.C. Telephone Coalition, which represents 21 rural phone companies.

Bowen said of Knapp’s calculations of potential increases, “That’s probably true, but those are not the facts.”

Although he did acknowledge the bill would let phone companies raise rates, Bowen said most of the phone companies have voluntarily capped business-line prices since the late 1990s.

Knapp said that regardless of what phone companies actually do, the power the bill could give them should make rural businesses concerned. Knapp previously had drawn attention to parts of the bill beneficial to BellSouth, the state’s dominant phone company.

Donna Martin is the spokeswoman for rural-serving Hargray Communications Group, which provides service to Bluffton Telephone Co.

“We would like to take our rates to the state average gradually,” Martin said.

Martin said a business line costs $17.20 in Bluffton now, and that the statewide average cost of such a line was $28.70 in 1997. She did not know current statewide averages, she said.

Doug Pratt, a technical adviser to the S.C. Public Service Commission, said the commission would be “pleased if the bill went away.” The PSC regulates utilities.

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

BellSouth supports the bill. Company officials have said the bill is designed to let market competition, rather than the PSC, play a larger role in phone regulation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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