Bell Atlantic Corp. is proposing that U.S. telephone ratepayers pay a 25- to 35-cent surcharge on their local phone bills to extend the so-called "information superhighway" to schools and libraries throughout the nation.
The telephone company's proposal came in a filing last week with the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering rules for implementing the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
One of the goals of that act is extending high-speed Internet access to public institutions.
The surcharge, which would amount to $3 a year if a 25-cent charge were adopted, would be used to create a national fund that would distribute money to schools and libraries through state trustees.
The local phone companies would collect the surcharge and forward it to the fund, which would pay for installing high-speed lines as well as monthly charges.
With more than 150 million phone lines in the United States, such a surcharge would raise more than $450 million a year.
Edward D. Young, Bell Atlantic's associate general counsel, called the proposal "the fastest, fairest and least expensive way to give everyone access to the information superhighway."
But a consumer group and rival AT&T panned the idea, suggesting it was put forward to benefit Bell Atlantic more than the public.
Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, charged that Bell Atlantic's proposal would violate the new telecommunications law.
"There's no place in this whole bill that says anything about end users being the source of the fund," said Cooper, who added that his organization fully supports the wiring of schools and libraries.
Cooper said the extension of advanced communications to schools and libraries could be funded by the telecommunications companies. He said that while the companies might choose to pass on the costs of their contributions, some might not in order to gain a competitive advantage.
Cooper also criticized Bell Atlantic's plan to charge full retail prices for telecommunications services to schools and libraries, contending that the telecommunications law requires phone companies to offer such institutions a discount.
The proposal also was attacked by AT&T Corp., which accused Bell Atlantic of "thinking like a monopolist" and trying to force customers to pay a "tax."
AT&T suggested funding such services by diverting some money that is expected to be cut out of access charges, which long-distance carriers pay for the part of a call that travels over the local phone network.
Ritch Blasi, the AT&T spokesman, said that if access charges for a theoretical call were cut 45 cents, perhaps 5 cents of that could go to fund the schools and libraries initiative.
Access fees, which traditionally have been kept high to subsidize universal residential service, are expected to come down significantly as part of the FCC's implementation of the telecommunications law.
Michel Daley, a Bell Atlantic spokesman, said his company would have no problem whatsoever if AT&T wanted to divert any access fee reduction to a universal service fund. But he added that such a move would violate the telecommunications act.
"It would be a great idea, except it's illegal," Daley said.
The creation of a national fund to subsidize extension of telecommunications services would clearly increase Bell Atlantic's business opportunities -- a fact the company does not dispute.
"I would hope that taxpayers realize this is for the public good. The cost is minimal," Daley said.
He said that with impending competition in the local telephone network, there would be no guarantee that any school or library would choose Bell Atlantic.
Pub Date: 5/13/96