Ruling on video not clear win for phone companies

October 21, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission told local phone companies yesterday that it would press ahead with its plan to let them provide video services but would not let them stick ratepayers with the bill.

In a decision that was roundly denounced by consumer groups and the cable television industry, the FCC reaffirmed its 1992 decision to let phone companies offer "video dial tone" services such as television programming and movies on demand.

But the unanimous FCC ruling was far from a clear-cut victory for the phone companies. The commission refused to put the phone companies' applications to build the video network on a fast track and adopted rules that could delay approvals of many of the 28 pending requests.

Bell Atlantic's pending requests to build video networks in Baltimore, Washington and other regional markets are among the applications that could be held up as the commission begins yet another rule-making process to deal with questions it did not resolve yesterday.

James D. Schlichting, a spokesman for the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau, said some of the issues raised in Bell Atlantic's petition might have to wait until those rules were in place. He said that process could take about six months.

Such a delay could -- Bell Atlantic's previously announced hopes of rolling out video service in Baltimore and other markets in 1995.

That regulatory framework will apparently be tighter than the phone companies would have wished, however. The FCC flatly ruled out a scheme proposed by some phone companies -- not Bell Atlantic -- to allocate all or nearly all of the conventional analog channels on their networks to a single "anchor" programmer. The commissioners emphasized that they expect video dial tone services to be run as common carriers, with channels available to multiple programmers on a nondiscriminatory basis.

The FCC rebuffed calls by consumer groups and the cable industry to impose hard-and-fast rules on allocation of costs between video ventures and regulated telephone service. But the commission gave the telephone companies broad "guidance" that facilities for providing video must be charged to video services and not ratepayers. It also warned that it expected a reasonable allocation of the costs of shared facilities, implicitly warning companies that if they get too greedy their applications could be held up.

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