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Consumers tell legislators to maintain phone regulation

Consumers asked a special legislative committee Tuesday to put aside corporate visions of rapidly changing communications and retain regulations on local telephone service until it becomes truly competitive.

"I don't think we should subsidize GTE's experiments," said Lee Harrell of Tampa.

Joseph Blaber of Clearwater, representing the American Association of Retired Persons, said consumers should be guaranteed that their service will be affordable and that they will pay only for add-ons that they want and use.

"Who benefits?" asked Blaber. "Who profits from these suggestions? Who loses? Possibly the private citizen."

The discussion comes as the communications industry is promising a future in which voice, data and video are all delivered digitally in a multimedia format in a convergence of the telephone, computer and television set.

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

The state Senate has organized a similar committee. Another hearing of the House committee will be held in Tallahassee next month, as the state Legislature considers rewriting the state's telecommunications laws.

On Tuesday evening, the committee met in the Hillsborough County Commission boardroom for the public hearing, after a day that included presentations from the competitive pay telephone industry and GTE Florida Inc.

Local telephone companies, such as GTE Florida, say they are bracing for competition from long-distance providers, cable operators and others interested in battling it out for their customers.

The local phone companies want certain restrictions lifted so that the rules become consistent for everyone. For example, they want to share the burden for "universal service," a mandated obligation for monopoly telephone companies to furnish a working phone line to every Floridian who wants one.

Monte Belote, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, said local telephone companies shouldn't be deregulated until real competition develops and a significant number of consumers can choose their carrier.

"We believe we should allow competitors to develop first," said Belote. "Let the competitors gamble the investors' funds."

Further, Belote said, universal service should mean 100 percent of Florida residents have phones.

He said minimum basic service should include TouchTone, because of all the ways those keypads are now used as communications tools.