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RealTime IT News

Last Minute Plea For Line-Sharing Rule

Long distance provider AT&T is leading the charge in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block a lower court ruling that tossed out rules forcing Baby Bells to provide discounted access to their copper phone lines.

In a stay request to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, AT&T, representing competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) and Public Utility Commissions (PUCs), argued that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has "substituted its view of sound national telecommunications policy for that of the agency to which Congress delegated policymaking authority on a matter of great technological and economic complexity."

The request came one day after the Bush Administration and the Federal Communications Commission decided not to appeal a lower court ruling that tossed out regulations forcing Baby Bells to provide discounted access to their lines for competitors. The lack of support for an appeal could make AT&T's stay request more difficult to achieve.

The issues arose in August of last year, after the FCC issued rules allowing the Bells to close off their high-speed lines to competitors while continuing to require the telecom giants to share their voice copper lines at steeply discounted prices. The U.S. Telecom Association (USTA) and three Baby Bells appealed the rules.

In March the D.C. Court tossed out the discount line pricing provisions but upheld all other parts of the FCC ruling.

Earlier this week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) declined the request of three FCC commissioners to appeal the decision. The DOJ move also set the stage for the AT&T stay request. If the Supreme Court refuses to grant the stay, long distance carriers and CLECs will be forced after June 15 to negotiate market rates with the Bells for line access.

Long distance carriers and consumer advocates contend the inevitable results of market rates will be higher consumer prices. "If the mandate issues, the incumbents will unilaterally cease providing access to switching and transport elements at cost-based rates and will shift competitive carriers to different and much costlier arrangements," the AT&T petition reads.

The stay petition further contends the D.C. Circuit's decision imposes "immense burdens" on PUCs and "jeopardizes competitive services now being received by approximately 20 million residential and business customers."

"Higher phone prices are going to hit like a rock," Peter Arnold, spokesman of the Voices For Choices coalition, said in a statement released Thursday. "The Appeals Court ripped away one of the most important consumer protections in federal telecom law. The only reason calling prices dropped in recent years is because competition emerged to the Bell monopolies."

Supporters of the D.C. Court's decision and the Bush administration's decision not to appeal, such as Communications Workers Association, contend subsidized long distance and local telephone rates are no longer necessary in a telecom industry increasingly characterized by competition among wireline, wireless, cable and satellite communications providers.

"The current regulatory policy, forcing the Bell regional phone companies to lease their lines to competitors at artificially low rates, has stifled capital investment, costing tens of thousands of jobs and constraining the roll-out of broadband communications," CWA President Morton Bahr said.

Bahr's statement added: "We believe this outmoded framework is a major reason why most Americans still don't enjoy high-speed Internet services, while in Japan, Korea and Taiwan there is virtually universal high-speed broadband at five times the speed that is common in this country."