The Oklahoma Corporation Commission on Thursday postponed consideration of Southwestern Bell Telephone's application to provide long-distance service in Oklahoma, pending outcome of federal court action.
The decision came amid pledges from the commissioners to vigorously support efforts opening the state's telecommunications markets to competition and left one commissioner questioning what he called an orchestrated attempt by Southwestern Bell to focus public opinion pressure on the agency.
Commissioner Bob Anthony submitted a packet of letters from companies supporting the Bell application. He included press releases and advertisements issued by Bell claiming savings of between 50 percent and 67 percent on long-distance, an estimated 1998 savings of $40 million to Oklahoma consumers, should the commission approve the company's initiative. He suggested the company's publicity efforts were designed to generate public pressure on the corporation commissioners to rule favorably upon the application. Curt Long, Southwestern Bell attorney, said he had not undertaken any such effort. "I feel there is an indication that I orchestrated this," Long said of the various letters. "The record should be crystal clear. I have not orchestrated anything. I did not see the ads before they ran. I have not seen these letters until today. They appear to me to be comments from the public urging you to favorably support our applications. As elected officials, it is proper for the public to communicate with you." Both Commission Chair Ed Apple and Commissioner Denise Bode said their vote for the continuance should not be seen as a lessening of desire to bring meaningful competition to Oklahoma's telecommunications markets. Apple had initially shocked hearing participants with a motion to approve the Bell application based on the written record. Approval would be subject to pending federal court action. "That way if the federal courts lift the stay, the process will already be in place without requiring any further commission action," Apple said. "This genuinely indicates that Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission strongly support competition in the telecommunications market." Apple said that Oklahoma has been a leader in spurring competition in utility markets. He said a timely decision is needed to move the process forward. The federal courts have made this difficult, Apple said, stressing that Oklahoma should not build more delays into the system. He said the commission needs to make an independent decision based on what is best for the citizens of Oklahoma. "I don't intend to let my agenda be dictated by what may or may not happen (in court). I am trying to break down a barrier," Apple said. "We want to unclog everything we can in this process." Bode said she too strongly supports creating a competitive telecommunications market in the state. But, she suggested the process should follow the regular procedure of allowing cross- examination and accepting additional debate. …