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
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
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. …