Bell to ask for long distance State panel, rivals oppose move, citing carrier's domination

March 13, 1997|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Bell Atlantic Corp. plans to ask state regulators tomorrow to bless its plans to enter the long-distance phone business in Maryland by fall, but opponents said it's unfair to let Maryland's traditional monopoly carrier of local phone service into long distance until it does more to open the local phone business to free competition.

The filing with the state Public Service Commission is a prelude to a filing in June or July under the Federal Communications Act, said John Dillon, vice president of external affairs for Bell Atlantic-Maryland Inc.

Under the federal telecommunications deregulation law passed last year, the FCC decides whether to allow local Bell companies into long-distance service. Its decision is based heavily on advice from state regulators.

"My hope is that we will [offer long-distance service in Maryland] by the late third quarter or fourth quarter of this year," Dillon said. "If we can get the approval, we're going to jump in."

But before Bell Atlantic can jump into long distance it will have to climb over the objections of competitors and of the state People's Counsel, which represents consumers before the PSC.

"It's a couple of weeks ahead of schedule," Assistant People's Counsel Theresa Czarski said. "We thought it was an April Fool's joke."

The telecommunications reform act says Bell companies can enter the long-distance markets in states where they have held local service monopolies after they meet three conditions.

They must prove that another carrier has built a call handling network that is serving both business and residential customers, show that they have met a 14-point series of tests showing they have made parts of their own call handling network available for rental to competitors, and show that letting them enter long distance is in the public interest.

Dillon said Bell Atlantic can show it meets the prerequisites.

He said the company and five other carriers have reached terms on how the newcomers can lease parts of Bell Atlantic's network and connect traffic between their customers and Bell Atlantic's. MFS Communications Co. also has the state's approval and the facilities to offer local service to Maryland commercial and residential customers, Dillon said.

However, AT&T and MFS sharply attacked Bell Atlantic's analysis.

AT&T said Bell Atlantic still controls 99.9 percent of the 2 million-plus local phone service customers in Maryland, and said its rival is still so strong in local service that it threatens to monopolize both long distance and local if it is allowed into long distance too soon.

"Once you let them into the long-distance market, the cat is out of the bag," said Russell Blau, a Washington attorney representing MFS/WorldCom Inc., the company formed by the merger of local carrier MFS and WorldCom, the nation's No. 4 long-distance carrier behind AT&T, MCI and Sprint Corp.

"It gives them a captive market" of local service customers to sell long distance to, he said, before many major long-distance carriers can sell local service.

MFS spokesman Steve Ingish said the company has no more than a handful of residential customers in Maryland, undercutting Bell Atlantic's argument that it has opened the local market enough to be allowed into long distance.

"Our marketing is almost 100 percent to businesses," Ingish said.

Gary Ball, MFS assistant vice president, said the tiny number of non-Bell Atlantic local service customers could give the FCC or PSC a reason to reject Bell Atlantic's move into long distance even though it has met the specific technical requirements of the law.

"They could say, 'You've met the checklist, but you still have a monopoly,' " Ball said.

Dillon insisted that "there is no market share test" in the law, requiring that other competitors gain a major share of the local service business before Bell Atlantic can enter long distance.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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