PUBLIC UTILITIES Official outlines phone changes



Basic local exchange and caller ID services would stay the same under the PUCO's plan.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio expects a number of telephone companies to offer residential phone service in Ohio once the agency's regulation plan for the industry is finalized in the spring.
"The door's open for others to come through," said PUCO Chairman Alan R. Schriber during a meeting Tuesday with writers from The Vindicator. "We've eliminated the barriers to competition."
The PUCO adopted rules earlier this month making it easier for companies to provide residential phone service in Ohio under a generic alternative regulation plan, Schriber said. The plan permits phone companies to raise fees for certain services after two years, but places caps and restrictions on those increases.
Rates: Basic local exchange and caller identification services would be unchanged indefinitely.
Companies would freeze rates for two years for second phone lines, call waiting, call tracing and other "nonessential services" and then be permitted to raise rates up to 10 percent a year capped at the doubling of the company's current fee for those services, Schriber said.
If companies opt to continuously raise rates for those services, Schriber said, they will find themselves failing to attract customers to use those options.
"I'd be shocked if they went up after two years because they are not vital and if the fees go up, people won't buy them," he said.
Also, telephone companies would be required to offer broadband services, which include high-speed Internet, to many of its customers a year after the PUCO's plan is enacted, Schriber said.
Currently, most local telephone companies have to seek PUCO approval before raising rates on basic service and file notices with the agency before raising fees on other services, Schriber said.
The PUCO oversees the regulation of electric, natural gas, telecommunications, commercial transportation and water utilities in the state.
Those who object to the PUCO's local telephone plan have until Jan. 5 to seek another hearing. Schriber said he expects a number of objections to be filed. The PUCO will adopt its local telephone plan no later than Feb. 5 and send it to the state Legislature's Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review for final approval, Schriber said. That approval could take up to 75 days.
Hagan: State Sen. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-33rd and a member of the joint committee, said he is unsure about his vote for the PUCO's plan.
"I'll listen to how the PUCO developed this plan, but I'm not a big fan of deregulation," Hagan said. "It hasn't shown any profit for consumers. The PUCO is going to have to do a lot of proving to me that this is a good plan before I vote for it."
The PUCO held seven public hearings this summer about the proposed local telephone regulations, but did not have one in the Mahoning Valley. Because of that, the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, a consumers' advocacy group, held a hearing in Youngstown in August on the plan.
"You can only go to so many of these things," Schriber said. "They all sound the same after a while. We had seven hearings. We do it because it's nice to have presence, but how many can you do?"
skolnick@vindy.com

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