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SW Bell takes first step toward Mo. long distance

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

After plans to do so stalled in May, and though it is still not having any luck in other states, Southwestern Bell has filed with the Missouri Public Service Commission to provide long-distance service to Missouri customers.

The Nov. 20 filing represents the first step in Bell's efforts to begin providing long-distance calling in the state. After a 120-day review period by the PSC, if the commission approves, the company will take its request to the Federal Communications Commission, submitting an application for final long-distance approval, said Amy White, spokeswoman for Southwestern Bell.

The company, which operates in four other states, has not yet received approval to offer long-distance service in any of those states. Though the Oklahoma equivalent of the PSC gave its approval, the FCC then rejected Bell's application to provide long distance, White said.

Missouri is the last of the five states where Southwestern Bell has filed its application to offer long distance. The company announced plans to file with the commission in May, but didn't because of a lack of resources.

"At that time, we really did not have the manpower to dedicate to preparing another state filing. We were too busy with our applications in other states, and we have only a finite amount of resources dedicated to preparing those applications, which is a very time-consuming task," White said.

Other telecommunications providers in the state of Missouri are concerned about whether there is sufficient competition in the local market for Bell to be able to provide long distance. A provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was that, in order for the regional Bell operating companies like Southwestern Bell to begin long distance, the local phone service markets had to be opened up.

Diane Miller, a spokeswoman for Show Me Competition, a coalition of competing telephone companies and others interested in the telecommunications industry, said the filing was premature.

"Federal law requires them to give up their monopoly on local service before they can get into long distance. They have obviously failed to meet this test," Miller said, citing statistics that show less than 1 percent of customer lines in Missouri are being sold by competing companies.

White counters that the market is open, and that the problem is not Bell's, as it has fulfilled its obligation.

"Those who think we are premature in this need to go back and re-read the Telecom Act. We do not have to lose a magic percentage of lines in order to be able to get into long distance. For companies to complain there isn't enough competition is ironic, because it's their responsibility to offer that competition," White said.

Kevin Kelly, spokesman for the PSC, said that as of Oct. 21, there were 53,700 lines served by competitors to Bell, and that represents 1.6 percent of the total access lines in Missouri.

White said that several long-distance providers were focusing on enticing business customers and had not spent as much time wooing residential customers. She said Bell will continue its emphasis on residential service, and hopes to attract customers with the offer of "writing one check for all your phone service."

Mike Dandino, senior public counsel with the Missouri Office of the Public Counsel, said the filing is "way too premature," and that competition in the local markets is "in its infancy, if that far."

"In order to let them get into long distance, you're going to have to have some alternative to Southwestern Bell in the local marketplace. Right now there's no strong competition, no effective competition, and Bell is the only choice for most folks," Dandino said.

Richard Weinstein, chief executive officer for Digital Teleport Inc., which has a sales office in Springfield and will offer local phone service here, said the application may be premature, but Bell is a strong company and has its own plan behind this strategic move.

Competing with the company is still very difficult in Missouri, Weinstein said, and his company is not sure yet whether it will intervene in the PSC's case about the Bell filing.

AT&T's Steve Weber, director of law and governmental affairs for Missouri, said that Southwestern Bell is now 0-for-4 in its filings among other states, and that those state regulators had said the company had not complied in opening its local service to competition.

"... Less than 1 percent of Missouri consumers have a choice of local service providers. We would have expected Southwestern Bell to devote its resources to fixing its problems rather than waste everyone's time identifying the same problems a fifth time," Weber said.

Dandino said he "would certainly hope the commission would reject, based on its information and the problems in other states, this request by Bell. I don't see where they can make a case for it at this time."

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