Bell Atlantic to seek OK for long-distance video Company wants right to distribute programming over its phone lines

February 26, 1993|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

Bell Atlantic Corp. said yesterday it wants broad geographic rights to distribute video programming over its phone lines and will try to overturn the legal ban on long-distance service that prevents it from doing so.

The Philadelphia-based parent company of the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. said it will ask the Justice Department today to support overturning part of the court-supervised consent decree that has determined the ground rules for telephone industry competition since the 1982 government order break up AT&T.

The request is part of a broader effort by Bell Atlantic and other telephone companies to expand their traditional businesses into video, music and other entertainment and information services.

At the same time, powerful advances in communications technology have brought other companies into phone-company turf, blurred industry boundaries and weakened the arguments supporting the 11-year-old consent decree.

Southwestern Bell recently announced its purchase of cable TV franchises in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia. And earlier this week, another large regional Bell company, Ameritech, said it would seek broad new powers to compete fully in communications services throughout its Midwest territory.

For instance, the company, which covers that mid-Atlantic region, wants to provide customers with the ability to turn on televisions and order movies from a library of listings.

The company said yesterday it will ask the Justice Department for a waiver of one of the restrictions that was imposed on it during the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. break-up in 1984.

Bell Atlantic and six other regional phone companies were created in that divestiture to provide local phone service, leaving the long-distance market to AT&T. The so-called Baby Bells are prohibited from offering long-distance service in their primary markets because they have monopoly control over local phone lines.

But Bell Atlantic said yesterday it will argue that the prohibition should not stand for video services because there are many competitors providing such programming, including cable, TV broadcasters, direct satellite broadcasts and videocassettes.

"Bell Atlantic has zero share in the video delivery arena and seeks to enter the market in competition with the established delivery channels,"Art Bushkin, president of the company's information services unit, said in a prepared statement.

"It is inherently competitive, so we ought to be able to do it," said Bell Atlantic spokesman Larry Plumb.

Bell Atlantic said it believes it is the first of the Baby Bells to seek a waiver of the long-distance restriction. But even without the waiver, the company said it will go into the video programming business in major metropolitan areas. "We will go into the business, it is just a matter of how broad it will be," said Mr. Plumb.

Bell Atlantic is now working on video programming tests in Northern Virginia and New Jersey. Under the consent decree, its territory was divided into a number of local access transport areas (LATAs), and it's not allowed to provide programming that crosses those boundaries.

The company says it can't install the expensive equipment for the video service in each LATA and needs to change the consent decree to offer the service at economical prices throughout its service area.

AT&T had no immediate comment on the Bell Atlantic announcement. "We haven't seen the Bell Atlantic proposal yet," said an AT&T spokesman Jim McGann. "So we can't evaluate it."

And cable companies declined to comment as well until they had a chance to see what Bell Atlantic will file today in U.S. District Court in Washington. The company said it is "pushing for quick action" by the court.

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