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Phone rules may be loosened

A state commission calls for changes in evaluating companies' service. But some officials say that would only hurt customers.

In a move that opponents fear would hurt basic telephone service, state regulators are considering sweeping changes to the standards used to evaluate telephone companies.

The Public Service Commission held a workshop Monday to consider the changes, which come as the state's three largest local phone companies face potential fines for failing to provide adequate service.

"We objected left and right," said deputy Public Counsel Charlie Beck, whose office was set up by the Legislature to represent consumers in utility matters. "They are simply degrading the standards and they are doing that at a time when the companies aren't meeting the ones currently in place."

GTE-Florida, which serves the Tampa Bay area, and BellSouth face potential fines for failing to meet standards designed to ensure that phone service is installed and repaired in a timely fashion. Sprint also may face fines for failing to meet quality-of-service standards.

The public counsel intervened in all three cases last September, arguing that two of the proposed settlements were far too low.

GTE, for instance, proposed paying $50,000 to settle its case. According to Beck, the company racked up 628 repair and installation violations from January 1996 to March 1999. Each violation can carry with it a fine of up to $25,000.

Now, however, commission staff members are suggesting that the installation and repair rules need to be changed. In addition, the staff is considering scrapping a system that annually assigns a pass or fail grade to the three large telephone companies.

The grade is based on a quality-of-service spot check performed by the Public Service Commission's staff. All of the large telephone companies have received a failing grade at least once on the three most recent tests.

Rick Moses, who oversees telephone service evaluations for the Public Service Commission, said the time for change has come. In 1995, state lawmakers deregulated the local telephone industry in an effort to spur competition.

"As more and more competition comes along, it is the intent of both the state and federal government to back off some of the regulation," Moses said. "We want rules that are adequate to ensure that customers continue to get the services they have enjoyed, but that give the companies some flexibility in how they conduct their business without being in violation of some commission rule."

The telephone companies must install 90 percent of all new telephone line orders within three days. A draft proposal would extend that time frame, requiring that companies install all new lines within an average of four days.

Opponents of the draft also complain that it would allow poorer service in rural areas.

"What this means is that you can treat rural customers badly and still comply with the rule," Beck said. "You can differentiate between business and residential lines, or areas where there is competition and areas where there is not."

Moses said the proposed change would allow companies to dispatch repair workers more efficiently: Workers could fix lines in the same neighborhood regardless of the nature of the problem rather than having to prioritize out-of-service lines.

In addition, Moses said the change was proposed as a way to grapple with a new telecommunication reality: People depend on a clear line to get on the Internet or use their fax machines.

"Static can be just as egregious as a loss of service," Moses said.

The big three companies, which still dominate the majority of the local phone service market, have long advocated changing the standards. They say that failure to meet a specific standard does not necessarily mean that the vast majority of customers aren't satisfied with their service. And they argue that upstart competitors do not have to comply with the standards.

Beverly Menard, an assistant vice president at GTE, said companies need more time to install new lines because people want more telephone features.

And in the days before deregulation, when telephone companies were granted local monopolies, Menard said she could hire as many people as needed to meet the state's standards and pass the cost along to customers.

"Today, I have competition and I can't do that," Menard said. "We are not trying to change the rules so I give worse service . . . the object is to allow us to spend money efficiently to give the best service to all my customers, not just to one customer so we can comply with a rule."

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