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GTE, SW Bell pursue options to replace COS plans

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Both Southwestern Bell and GTE have established plans that are designed to replace Community Optional Service, or COS.

That two-way calling plan, where customers pay a flat rate to gain unlimited calling to a designated exchange, will end prior to June 1, said Kevin Kelly, spokesman for the Missouri Public Service Commission.

The two new plans would not be two-way, but would allow customers to pay a flat rate for toll-free calling from one exchange to another.

GTE's plan has already been approved by the commission. That plan is called Extended Exchange Calling Plan and is now being offered in 159 GTE petitioning exchanges in Missouri. The charge to residential customers is $23 a month and $33 for business customers.

Southwestern Bell is petitioning the commission for approval of two plans: one is an interim, one-way COS program, and the other is a plan called Local Plus, which would provide flat-rate, unlimited calling to all customers within a local access transport area.

That service will cost $30 a month for residential customers and $60 for business customers. The interim COS will be $23 for residential customers and $33 for business customers. Both Bell services will be the subject of PSC hearings May 4-7, Kelly said.

An example of a local access transport area is the 417 area code. Missouri is divided into four such areas: the 417 area code; the 816 and 660 area codes; and the 314 and 573 area codes, with the exception of the Columbia-Jefferson City area, which comprises the fourth local access transport area.

In October 1997, the commission ordered that mandated COS should end by March 31, 1998, Kelly said, but later amended the order to extend the ending date. Previously, phone companies had been required to offer COS; the commission rule was intended to remove that mandate.

Though the phone companies' proposals are designed to be a replacement for the service, neither of them contain the two-way feature of COS.

The intent is for COS to be phased out as plans like Local Plus come on line, Kelly said. Last fall's announcement of an end to the mandated, two-way COS caused alarm among many citizens in rural areas, who had access to the service for $16 per month. A similar calling plan for metropolitan areas, called Metropolitan Calling Area, was not affected by the ruling. The MCA plan allows those in metropolitan areas to call a neighboring city for a flat fee, Kelly said.

By late summer, the commission should have reached a decision on both of Southwestern Bell's petitions, Kelly said.

The Missouri Office of the Public Counsel, which often intervenes in PSC cases on behalf of citizens, is still opposed to the elimination of the mandated COS, said Public Counsel Martha Hogerty.

"We are still opposed to eliminating COS. The commission has been operating under a mantra of competition that just doesn't exist," Hogerty said.

The commission's decision to end the mandated COS was based on the service's creating an "anti-competitive environment," Kelly said.

Though some southwest Missouri legislators had expressed an interest in finding a legislative solution for the COS situation, no bills have gained much support this session, Hogerty said. The new services offered by the phone companies will benefit the rural customers who've previously had COS, but it was the two-way nature of the service that made it so popular, she said.

A separate but related issue arising from the COS debate was that of using the service for access to the Internet, Kelly said. The commission has opened a separate case on that, and is still accepting comment from citizens, who can submit those comments themselves, without an attorney. There have not yet been formal evidentiary hearings in that case, Kelly added.

In another case, the Public Service Commission is now investigating customer calling-scope issues and services in Missouri, Kelly said. The commission opened the case Feb. 18.

The case was established to "develop a thorough report on calling-scope issues and services in order to adequately address the needs of Missouri customers in a competitive environment," according to a release from the commission. A final report is to be filed by participants in this case by Oct. 27.

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