Local firm need not aid rivals in set-up Bell Atlantic is not required to supply customized bundles

January 17, 1998|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

In a decision with major implications for phone service in Maryland, a Public Service Commission hearing examiner has declined to force Bell Atlantic Corp. to provide customized bundles of phone-network parts to competitors seeking to enter the local-service market.

Bell Atlantic owns most of the state's local-service phone network. Long-distance companies such as AT&T Corp. that want to expand into the local-service market have little choice other than to buy access to elements of Bell Atlantic's network, such as switching facilities, customer lists and calling features.

The long-distance companies wanted the commission to require Bell Atlantic to provide those elements in customized bundles, thus saving the companies from what they see as the unnecessary cost and hassle of assembling the parts into an efficient system.

Public Service Commission Hearing Examiner Joel M. Bright ruled that a decision last year by a federal appeals court in St. Louis on this issue "precludes this commission from directing Bell Atlantic to provide the [unbundled elements] as requested by AT&T and other parties in this case."

The appellate court, Bright noted, ruled the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires local-service firms such as Bell Atlantic "to provide elements in a manner that enables the competing carriers to combine them." But he said that decision does not force the regional local-service companies "to do the actual combining themselves of unbundled elements."

AT&T and MCI Communications Corp. said they will appeal Bright's decision to the full commission.

Wilma McCarey, general counsel and vice president for government affairs for AT&T in Maryland, said in a statement, "This opinion is a major step backward for telephone competition in Maryland and a setback for all consumers."

MCI spokeswoman Elena Lucini said, "We are confident the commission will support MCI's position once it realizes that requiring Bell Atlantic to provide network element platforms is an essential component of the Telecommunications Act's plan for opening Maryland's local market to competition."

Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said of the decision, "We feel that they got it right and that there's no need to overturn the decision."

The Maryland People's Counsel, which sided with the long-distance companies in the case, had no comment.

At the same time that Bright's ruling was made public yesterday, MCI opened a new front in the Maryland telephone war. The Washington, D.C.-based company asked the PSC to order Bell Atlantic to enter an agreement on how the two carriers can use each other's networks.

MCI said such an agreement could clear it to offer customers a local-service alternative to Bell Atlantic. MCI said Bell Atlantic is purposely delaying the agreement by reneging on prior accords and refusing to cooperate on customer directory information and other issues.

"It's hard to move forward when Bell Atlantic keeps trying to change the rules," said MCI's Lucini.

Countered Mary R. Vaden, Bell Atlantic's director of regulatory affairs in Maryland: "This is so typical of MCI. Instead of competing, they spend all their time litigating."

Pub Date: 1/17/98

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