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PSC tries to get a grip on its future


Case No. 8587 before the Maryland Public Service Commission ought to be renamed after Adm. James Stockdale, Ross Perot's erstwhile running mate. In it, the PSC basically asks the question: "Why am I here?"

It's not your garden variety PSC rate case. No. 8587 is an effort, instigated by state People's Counsel John M. Glynn, to explore fundamental questions about the PSC's proper regulatory role in the rapidly changing telecommunications industry.

Frank O. Heintz, the commission chairman, says the case is an opportunity for the commission to "get a grip on the future" and perhaps resolve the basic legal issue of what the PSC's jurisdiction should be at a time when it's hard to tell what is regulated telephone service and what is unregulated cable service.

In a Dec. 10 letter to the PSC, Mr. Glynn poses more than three dozen questions he believes it should ask itself in formulating policy for the years ahead.

With technology blurring the line between cable TV service and telephone service, Mr. Glynn poses the question: "Under what ++ circumstance or conditions should cable television providers be considered telecommunications providers for purposes of the assertion of state regulatory jurisdiction?"

With Bell Atlantic Corp. on the brink of offering video over its phone lines in Montgomery County, he asks whether the state should have broader jurisdiction to regulate those services.

The commission's staff got into the spirit with some equally trenchant questions, such as how the PSC should act to ensure the continuation of universal telephone service in the future.

Mr. Glynn says the case presents an opportunity for the commission to learn what the future holds in the field of telecommunications. He is urging that providers of information services come before the commission to give a "frank and detailed discussion of their vision for the future" in a forum that allows for cross-examination of witnesses.

Judging by their reaction at a preliminary hearing on the issue last week, the lawyers for the companies and industries involved would rather attend their own hanging. Instead of sitting at the trial table, as they usually do, they let the people's counsel and PSC staff have it to themselves, as if to say: This ain't about us, folks.

When they spoke, the lawyers seemed more interested in scoring points than in helping the commission formulate good public policy.

J. Edward Davis, attorney for the state's cable industry, balked at even accepting the national cable association's stated willingness to accept some regulation of its members if they are permitted into the telephone business. Like they're going to get a free pass?

On the other side, J. William Sarver, general counsel of Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., lawyered up a storm -- demanding a list of Mr. Davis' members as if the hearing were a criminal proceeding. Like C&P; doesn't know?

Mr. Glynn says the objective of the inquiry should be to educate the public and the commission about issues affecting the technological future of Maryland.

That doesn't seem to be an unreasonable objective. The companies should surely want to be involved; C&P;, for one, says it does.

Here's how they can help: The next time the PSC meets in Case No. 8587, send some knowledgeable executives to lay out the facts. And muzzle the lawyers.

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