Bill Offered to Streamline Phone Company Regulation

Article excerpt

Legislation to streamline regulation of telephone companies in Oklahoma, making it easier to modernize equipment and to have telemedicine and video conferencing, has been introduced by state Sen. Kelly Haney, D-Seminole.

Haney's task now is to sell consumer groups and state lawmakers on Senate Bill 349, endorsed by Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. and the Oklahoma Academy for State Goals.

The proposal would work this way: Participating local telephone companies would upgrade central offices to digital switching. They also would provide facilities to do two video conferencing "trials" in each county where they served the county seat. Video conferencing trials would be done for telemedicine, and for local or state government meetings that typically would involve travel for some of the participants.

Telemedicine would allow remote medical evaluation, diagnosis and consultation via telephone lines. Haney said it would increase rural access to medical specialists, and offer quick access to information and evaluation during emergencies. Touch-Tone calling would become part of local service, but the combined monthly service charge would decrease by 25 cents a month. Customers who didn't subscribe to Touch-Tone would continue paying the existing rate for local service. Local service rates would be frozen at the new, lower level for two years. After that, local rates could increase annually at a maximum of 25 cents a month. The increase would not be automatic, and a local telephone company could decide to do a smaller increase, or none at all, Haney said. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission would retain the power to rescind any increase in local service rates it found unreasonable.

If more than 10 percent of the company's customers objected to the increase, the commission could conduct a hearing to determine the reasonableness of the increase, Haney said. People age 65 or older would be exempt from potential increases in local rates. The bill would establish a "lifeline" service, allowing people who qualify for select government programs, such as food stamps, to reduce their monthly phone bills by $7. A four-year period would be established to test the new "market-based" approach to regulation. Local telephone companies could choose whether to be regulated under either the current or proposed systems of regulation.

The local companies also could opt to renew for an additional four years.

Gov. David Walters called for deregulation of the telecommunication industry in his State of the State speech this month, but Haney said Senate Bill 349 is an independent effort, and he had not discussed it with Walters.

Later in the afternoon, Walters said at his news conference that he had not seen the bill, "but I'm pleased that there are innovations being proposed."

The governor said he would wait to announce his own proposal until after a "broad-based work session" scheduled Feb. 19 and 20 at Shangri La resort. There, a "wide variety of representatives" will design a plan, he said. "I'm pleased there are vehicles floating around upstairs, though," he added, referring to bills on the subject in the Legislature.

"The bill encourages innovation, productivity, competition and new services for customers," Haney said.

"The measure would simplify today's regulatory process, but would not deregulate telephone companies. It includes numerous consumer safeguards to assure continued affordable local phone service," he said.

Rural citizens would have access to advanced communications services "typically found in bigger cities," and "Oklahoma could have the most innovative telemedicine system in the nation," Haney said. …

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