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DSL Advocates Take On Baby Bells

As more telephone companies begin offering Digital Subscriber Line technology to their customers, a new advocacy group is being launched to promote competition and affordable pricing in the high-speed Internet market.

The High Speed Access Coalition, or HiSAC, said it will act on behalf of households, home and office businesses and telecommuters who can only gain high speed data services through one company, usually a local Baby Bell. The group is hoping to spur competition among data service providers to the home market, in the hopes of shattering what it terms "the last remaining telecommunications monopoly."

HiSAC said although several start-ups who offer DSL service have asked Baby Bells to share local phone lines, the Baby Bells and Independent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs) are thwarting competitive access. The group said DSL service provided by regional Baby Bells, such as U.S. West and SBC, charge monthly rates that are as much as double the price charged by start-ups.

"Millions of Americans want affordable high-speed Internet access for their home, but they're being held hostage by the Baby Bell companies that are trying to preserve their monopoly control over data services for the residential market," said David Wilson, HiSAC's executive director and general counsel.

HiSAC said The Federal Communications Commission as well as the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) are now evaluating whether Baby Bells should provide the new DSL companies with equal access to the local phone networks. Fearing uninformed and hurried rulings, the group said public interest and consumer groups must act to stave off monopolization.

"This is about monopoly power over the 'last mile of copper' for home access to high-speed Internet service," Wilson said.

"Consumers have their choice of several long distance carriers and mobile phone services, but they still have only one choice when it comes to DSL service. The FCC and California PUC must avoid a rush to judgement until consumers have had a fair opportunity to make their opinions heard."

According to HiSAC, ILECs have long insisted that the newer companies known as Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLECs) must provide both voice and data service, and calls this "a tactic that unnecessarily raises the price that consumers would have to pay and has forced many of the original CLECs to focus on providing DSL and telephone service to the corporate market, where competition is more open."

"Just as consumers don't have to switch phone companies when selecting a long distance carrier, they should be able to select a data service company that is different than the company that provides their voice service," Wilson said.

The advantages of opening up the DSL market to more balanced competition, HiSAC said, will enable consumers to benefit from much lower charges.

"If consumers are ever going to receive the cost benefits that competition brings, the federal government and states need to open up local phone lines to innovation and spur competition," Wilson said.

"Although each company would establish its own rates, HiSAC projections show that proposed rates are considerably lower than cable access or DSL access through existing local phone companies," Wilson said.

In the burgeoning high-speed market, DSL is poised for considerable growth. David Cooperstein, senior analyst at Forrester Research predicts that by 2002, there will be 2.2 million ADSL users and that consumer spending on DSL access will reach $770 million dollars.

"Right now the market is very localized, although WorldCom just announced plans to launch DSL nationwide with start-ups Northpoint and Covad." Currently Covad and Northpoint compete against Baby Bells PacBell in California and Bell Atlantic in the East.