Bell Atlantic seeks to curb free 411 calls Customers now get six free inquiries of directory assistance

2-part legislative agenda

It also wants to change business flat rate, cites 9 for an unlimited call

February 26, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Bell Atlantic Corp. is asking the General Assembly to make two little-noticed but significant changes to Maryland's telecommunications law this spring -- both of which could eventually force certain callers to pay more for the services they use.

The more controversial of the two would let the state Public Service Commission impose significantly higher costs on businesses that make many calls of long duration -- especially those that use phone lines to transmit large volumes of data.

That bill, No. 342 in the Senate and 565 in the House, has drawn opposition from small business and banking interests, among others. Under current law, Bell Atlantic is required to offer business customers the option of being billed either per call or by minutes of use.

The other bill, No. 341 in the Senate and 572 in the House, would authorize the PSC to eliminate or modify the rule now enshrined in state law that guarantees six free calls to directory assistance each month.

So far, it has drawn less opposition, even though it could eventually result in higher bills for callers who routinely dial 411 instead of checking the telephone book for local numbers.

Sean Looney, director of government affairs for Bell Atlantic-Maryland, said both measures are needed as Maryland moves from a monopoly to a competitive telephone market. He noted that the legislation would not directly impose higher charges, but would authorize the PSC to consider whether increases were justified.

Mr. Looney said the measured-rate bill addresses a problem that has increased with the growing use of phone lines to transmit data and to gain access to the Internet and on-line services.

He said certain businesses now routinely tie up phone lines for hours at a time on a single call, paying only a flat charge of 9 cents.

Mr. Looney said the strain that puts on network capacity has forced Bell Atlantic to add equipment in some central offices, driving up the overall cost of offering phone service in the state.

"The residential ratepayers are subsidizing those businesses that are getting on the line for hours at a time and paying only 9 cents," Mr. Looney said. He added that Maryland was one of two states where telephone regulators are not allowed to deal with this issue.

Michael Travieso, the state's people's counsel, said he originally had no serious objection to the law but decided to oppose it after hearing Ross Baker, AT&T Corp.'s chief lobbyist in Maryland, suggest in testimony that the same principle should be applied to residential lines as well.

Such a change could have serious repercussion for residential users of the Internet and on-line services, who often spend hours "surfing" the World Wide Web or chatting with on-line friends.

But Mr. Travieso said Bell Atlantic has no intention of adopting AT&T's suggestion. "It would be impossible to even attempt to do something on the residential side," he said.

While Bell Atlantic's directory assistance proposal would affect the residential market, Mr. Looney said only a small percentage of home customers would be affected.

"Our data indicate that only 3 percent of our customers use six or more calls to 411 each month," he said. "That means 97 percent of the customers are subsidizing those people who won't use the telephone book."

Mr. Looney said the bills would retain exemptions providing free calls from pay phones and for the visually handicapped. He added that Maryland is the only state that guarantees a certain number of directory assistance calls.

Mr. Travieso said he would not oppose the directory assistance bill, accepting the argument that excess calls are subsidized by the majority of ratepayers. "The phone company doesn't give anything away," he said.

Mr. Looney said that if the bill were adopted, Bell Atlantic would ask the PSC to lower the number of free calls from six but added that, "We would never propose zero."

Hearings on the legislation have been held before the House Environmental Matters and Senate Finance committees, but no action has been taken on them so far.

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