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Hearings begin on Bell proposal

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Southwestern Bell wants to provide long-distance service in Missouri; the company made that fact clear with an application made months ago to the Missouri Public Service Commission.

March 1 the commission began hearings in the case, and it will make its determination in the next couple of months as to whether the telecommunications company should enter Missouri's long-distance market.

The PSC will then make a recommendation to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has the final word on whether Southwestern Bell is authorized to provide long-distance service in the state.

Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, incumbent providers of local telephone service, like Southwestern Bell, are to be allowed to provide long distance in a state after meeting the qualifications outlined in a 14-point checklist.

Foremost among those provisions is whether the local telephone market in a given state has been opened to competitors.

The PSC will make its determination based on whether Southwestern Bell has fulfilled the provisions of the checklist, and whether enough local competition exists in Missouri.

Southwestern Bell has already attempted to provide long distance in the four other states in its service area: Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas, but has yet to get the go-ahead in any of those states, which are all still in various stages of negotiation on the issue, said Amy White, spokeswoman for Southwestern Bell.

In Kansas and Texas, the state commissions that regulate public services found that Southwestern Bell had met some, but not all, of the provisions of the 14 points. In Oklahoma, White said, the commission ruled that the company had met the provisions of the 14-point checklist, but there has not yet been a final ruling in the case.

The Missouri PSC will hear evidence in the case until March 11. It will then deliberate and make its decision, which will be passed along to the FCC.

Several telecommunications companies have intervened in the case and will offer testimony to the effect that the Bell application is premature, said Diane Miller, spokeswoman for Show Me Competition, a nonprofit group that seeks to "ensure that all Missouri consumers benefit from the competitive prices, superior service and technological advances in phone service that can only come about when consumers have a real choice in their phone service," according to a news release from the organization.

Miller and other officials with Show Me Competition have argued that Southwestern Bell does not meet all of the measures outlined in the 14-point checklist, and that "real local telephone competition does not yet exist in Missouri," Miller said.

"Nothing has yet happened on Southwestern Bell's behalf to make their application more appropriate. Our members are still having difficulty negotiating and doing business against Southwestern Bell as their competition. ... It's still a struggle for them," Miller said.

White said that the company is confident that its case, as presented to the PSC, will show that Southwestern Bell has met the checklist's requirements and that enough competition exists in the local telephone market in Missouri for Bell to enter the long-distance arena. White added that the company has lost a significant amount of business to competitors.

"We think we have a good case and that once the PSC sees the number of lines lost, sees that there are competitors out there, then they will rule in our favor," White said.

White said that though a number of companies are now authorized to provide local phone service in Missouri, most of them are targeting business customers.

"Even those companies who have tariffs in place to serve residential customers are still marketing to the business customers," White said.

Steve Weber, director and attorney in government affairs for AT&T, said the residential area has been particularly slow in gaining competition. Though the competing companies have made some progress in gaining market share in local phone service, "we still have a long way to go," Weber said.

"The general feeling among the opposing parties at this point is that this filing is premature," Weber said.

Steve Smith, senior manager of sales and marketing for Dial US, said it is the position of Dial US and its parent company, McLeod USA, that Southwestern Bell hasn't met the requirements for entering the long-distance market.

Dial US re-sells Southwestern Bell's service to its customers and at this time has no facilities of its own.

The company also is not actively soliciting residential customers, choosing instead to market to businesses, but it does have a residential component, Smith said.

Dial US was founded in Springfield by Jim Hedges.

The company was sold to McLeod, which also owns Bi-Rite Directories in Springfield, in 1998.

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