Phone company gets annoyed by bills, too

9 from Del. Stern enough to make a lobbyist wince

February 27, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Telecommunications lobbyists got a workout yesterday defending themselves against an array of bills in the Maryland General Assembly - most of them sponsored by a single freshman delegate who has emerged as the scourge of the industry.

Del. Joan Stern had nine telecommunications bills up for hearing in the House Environmental Matters Committee - as many as some legislators introduce in an entire session.

Stern said the most important of the bills are aimed at bringing competition to the local telephone market, now dominated by Verizon.

"We have a golden opportunity to change the telecommunications landscape in Maryland," said Stern, who has become Verizon's chief critic in Annapolis.

Five of Stern's bills are explicitly aimed at changing the way the former Bell Atlantic Corp. does business - in dealing with potential competitors, providing high-quality service and in providing basic "lifelines" to the poor.

Not surprisingly, Verizon lobbyist Sean Looney was a busy man yesterday.

"The fact is, most of the bills she has in there would harm our customers, our employees, our retirees and our shareholders," Looney said before the hearing.

Stern, a Montgomery County Democrat, has been targeting Verizon since her second year in Annapolis, when she first sponsored legislation intended to hasten competition in the local market. For the past two years, her telecommunications-related bills have died either in committee or in the Senate.

Undeterred, Stern has expanded her list of targets this year to include wireless telephone companies, long-distance providers and the Public Service Commission.

Stern said her interest in telecommunications stems from her 1998 campaign in her northern Montgomery district, where voters were upset because they were outside the local calling area for Washington and the south county.

"My people were complaining about having to pay $14.50 extra a month because they were outside the local calling area," she said.

Stern said she also began hearing complaints from businesses in her district - a hotbed of the biological sciences - that Verizon hasn't been rolling out a high-technology network as fast there as in other states.

"If we don't have cutting-edge technology, these companies are in trouble. They're not going to be able to keep up with their competitors," she said.

The delegate's prescription for these and other perceived ills is greater competition in the local network - a view that was heartily endorsed by representatives of Verizon's would-be competitors.

Valerie Evans, vice president of Covad, strongly endorsed a bill that would impose a code of conduct on local phone companies' dealings with potential competitors.

Evans said her Washington-based provider of high-speed Internet connections had to wrangle with Verizon for 18 months before the Federal Communications Commission told the local phone company it could no longer require installation of a new phone line in order for Covad to serve a new customer.

"We had thousands of customers screaming for it," Evans said. "For a year and a half, customers had to be inconvenienced."

As is typical in disputes between local and long-distance carriers, the argument broke down into a duel of statistics.

Carville Collins, a lobbyist for MCI WorldCom, said his client has been battling for eight years to get into the Maryland local phone service market. Despite the long battle, Verizon competitors have just 1 percent of the residential lines in the state, he said.

Looney countered that Verizon now has 80 competitors operating in Maryland, with 166 separate interconnection agreements.

The code-of-conduct legislation, co-sponsored by Del. Dereck Davis of Prince George's County, would prohibit carriers from knowingly impeding the development of competition in the market by denying interconnections or providing inferior connections to other telecommunications companies. It would also require the PSC to issue decisions more quickly.

Other Stern legislation would increase the penalties the PSC could impose on companies for violating its orders, and impose a stricter price regulation on phone rates if competition does not develop.

Her bill affecting the cellular phone industry, opposed by wireless carriers, would require companies to allow customers to cancel their contracts within 30 days of signing up for service. Opponents said most companies already offer such grace periods.

Stern's long-distance bill would require companies to give customers written notice of price changes. Industry lobbyists said it would impose an undue burden on them.

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