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.”

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