Bell Atlantic Corp. ran into "The Revenge of the Nerds" yesterday as a handful of Internet users persuaded the Maryland Public Service Commission to defer action on the telephone company's proposed pricing plan for its digital phone service.
The two-week delay gives Bell Atlantic's opponents critical time to mount their opposition to the proposed rate structure for the high-speed service known as ISDN, or integrated services digital network, which the company has called "a critical initial on-ramp to the information superhighway."
To most consumers, ISDN may be just another mind-boggling telecommunications abbreviation, but to users of the Internet and other computer networks it represents increased telecommunications line capacity or bandwidth. Bandwidth, which controls the speed at which information can be exchanged over a network, is as crucial an issue to Internet users as rain is to a farmer.
The opponents, who were joined by the Maryland Office of the People's Counsel, objected to Bell Atlantic's tariff filing because it does not provide the flat-rate option that Internet users contend is available in 28 other states.
They also attacked a provision of the tariff that would let Bell Atlantic charge business ISDN customers more for sending data across the network than it does for voice traffic.
After hearing the objections, the commission voted to delay its decision and instructed the company to meet with the People's Counsel and PSC staff to work out a compromise on ISDN pricing issues.
The controversy erupted over what appeared to be a routine agenda item for the commission's weekly administrative meeting. Nothing in the agenda mentioned ISDN, nor did Bell Atlantic's tariff filing mention ISDN on its title page.
"It was my impression that it was considered a routine item," said Frank Fulton, a spokesman for the PSC. "It might have surprised everyone, including staff."
Eric Rabe, a Bell Atlantic spokesman, said the company had no intention of trying to hide what it was doing and had not expected a controversy.
If any element of surprise had been intended, it was lost when a small cadre of Internet users learned of the filing last week and began to discuss it on a Usenet group called "comp.dcom.isdn."
Theresa Czarski, assistant people's counsel, told the commission that she learned about the issue late Monday, when she began to receive calls from Internet users protesting the tariff.
"We have been receiving faxes all night long," Ms. Czarski said, adding that the consumer complaints prompted her to take a closer look at the tariff. She added that, by not providing a flat rate, Bell Atlantic appears to be violating Maryland law.
"ISDN might be one of those items that for consumers should be considered a basic service," she said. Bell Atlantic disputed that assertion.
Ms. Czarski was joined in testifying by three Internet consumers. tTC She told the PSC that she spoke with several other opponents who would have testified if the meeting had not been held on Yom Kippur.
One user was Scot Kight, a computer science student at the University of Maryland, who said he has been an avid Internet user for five years. "There are many companies providing this service for much, much less," he told the commission, noting that Bell Atlantic still controls a monopoly over residential service in Maryland.
David Lesher, a Silver Spring electrical engineering consultant, charged that Bell Atlantic was exaggerating its costs of providing ISDN while minimizing the features of the service that would save it money.
Mr. Lesher also criticized Bell Atlantic's tariff for proposing to require ISDN customers to keep their conventional service, even though ISDN lines can carry both data and voice messages at the same time, and for preventing customers from using ISDN voice lines at a flat rate.
Mr. Rabe defended the tariff, saying it is necessary to tie rates to usage in order to discourage some individuals from leaving their ISDN connections on all day -- which, in fact, Mr. Kight said he would like to be able to do.
The Bell Atlantic spokesman said many residential customers would be pleased by the tariff rate of $17.50 a month, plus 2 cents a minute for peak use and a penny a minute for night and weekend use.
H. Russell Frisby, the PSC chairman, told the parties in the case that any tariff they agree upon must be based upon costs and must not subsidize one service at the expense of another.
Mr. Starkey, whose staff had supported the Bell Atlantic tariff, said yesterday evening that the opponents raised some "legitimate concerns."
"The letters they sent were concise and to the point and provided us with good input," he said. "They certainly influenced the process."