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Legislative committee focuses on regulation of phone service

A special legislative committee that is studying whether to change the way Florida regulates its telephone companies will listen to the public's ideas at a session tonight in Tampa.

Since August, the House Select Committee on Telecommunications has met in Tallahassee, Miami and Orlando in an effort to learn whether the communications landscape has changed enough to lift the regulations.

The issue is competition. Local phone companies, such as GTE Corp., say they are feeling the heat from long-distance providers, cable operators and others interested in stealing away their customers.

Long-distance giant AT&T, for example, announced Monday it is lowering its rates on local toll service for small businesses.

The local phone companies want certain restrictions lifted. They want to share the burden of "universal service," a mandated obligation to furnish a working phone line at a reasonable price to every Floridian who wants one.

"The game needs to be played by all players with the same rules," said Don McLeod, vice president for external affairs at GTE Florida Inc. in Tampa. McLeod said all providers should contribute to support universal service.

Alternative access companies, such as Intermedia Communications of Florida Inc., want the transition from a monopoly environment to a competitive market to be as orderly as possible.

"Florida is not keeping pace with the rest of the nation," said Barbara L. Samson, senior vice president at Intermedia.

But consumer advocates warn that the market is a long way from true competition.

"We fear that given the track record of monopoly local phone companies, given any discretion at all, they will find ways to price gouge consumers," said Monte Belote, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network.

"Until a majority of consumers have at least one other choice, and significant numbers of consumers actually can make the choice, all this crying about competition is just blowing smoke to confuse the public," he said.

The hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the Hillsborough County Commission Board Room at the County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa.