WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission approved yesterday a trio of sweeping measures aimed at bolstering competition in the $60 billion-a-year long-distance market and streamlining further its regulation of American Telephone & Telegraph Co.
In back-to-back unanimous decisions, the FCC decided that:
* AT&T may change the rates it charges large business customers on
14 days' notice instead of the 45 days to eight months it now takes to get new rates approved.
* AT&T can no longer sell toll-free 800-number services as part of a package offering to large business customers.
* The regional Bell phone companies have 18 months to make technical improvements to their networks so large business customers can keep the same toll-free 800 number even if they switch long-distance companies.
AT&T hailed the commission's
actions as an important step toward leveling the long-distance playing field and loosening the regulatory restraints on AT&T.
"The FCC has indeed made some substantial progress in moving towards a lessened regulatory situation for AT&T," said John Smart, president of business communication services for AT&T.
That assessment was disputed by John Hoffman, vice president for external affairs at US Sprint.
"AT&T is trying to put a positive spin on this, but they're full of baloney," Mr. Hoffman said. "They lost everything."
Mr. Smart said that the reduced filing time for rate changes for business services, such as WATS and 800 lines, will substantially help AT&T in the competitive arena. AT&T had sought to have its filing time shortened to one day, but the commission agreed to 14 days' notice instead.
That's still better than the current 45-day filing requirement, and a far cry better than the eight months it now takes to get some tariffs approved, Mr. Smart said.
But he conceded that the decision to stop AT&T from selling toll-free 800-line services in customized packages for customers was "a disappointment to us."
"We think this will make it more complicated for customers than it should have been," Mr. Smart said.
Until yesterday, AT&T had bundled 800-line services into package deals for customers.
That has been a sore point for competitors, because 800-numbers can't be transported from one carrier to another due to technical limitations in the phone network. That limitation has largely played to the advantage of AT&T, which dominates the 800-line market.
Under yesterday's ruling, the "Baby Bells" have 18 months to solve the transfer problem. Once that happens, the commission said, all companies will be on equal footing with AT&T in the 800-line arena.
In another decision yesterday, the FCC declined to change the way local phone companies charge long-distance companies for local connections. Long-distance companies pay a flat, per-call rate. AT&T had asked the commission to charge long-distance companies by volume, which would have given price breaks to companies with higher call volumes.