Talks weigh Md. phone service expansion; PSC hopes they yield rules for letting others in Bell Atlantic market


In an attempt to chart the future of local telephone service in Maryland, the Public Service Commission kicked off a broad, ambitious round of talks yesterday among rival phone companies.

At issue is how to let companies enter the local phone market, which in Maryland and most of the northeastern United States is dominated by Bell Atlantic Corp. of New York.

A landmark 1996 federal telecommunications law sought to encourage local service companies like Bell Atlantic and long-distance companies like AT&T; Corp. to compete with one another.

Under the law, Bell Atlantic and other regional phone companies can offer long-distance service so long as they give other carriers sufficient opportunity to provide service in their local markets.

AT&T;, MCI WorldCom Inc. and other long-distance and local phone companies seek to break Bell Atlantic's hold on the Maryland local market. However, building a new network to rival Bell Atlantic's would be extremely expensive, so the new local-service entrants want to be able to use Bell Atlantic's facilities.

Not surprisingly, Bell Atlantic and its would-be competitors disagree strongly over the costs and terms of that access. The talks that began yesterday represent the PSC's effort to bridge those differences.

"This is basically a forum for the parties to negotiate and try to settle those ground rules," said Joel M. Bright, the PSC hearing examiner presiding over the talks.

In all, there are 17 parties to the negotiations, which are modeled on similar multilateral phone negotiations held in other states.

After some brief public statements, yesterday's talks were closed to the public. No decisions were made, and there was no discussion of specific issues. The next meeting is Feb. 1.

Several of the access and cost issues likely to be considered in the negotiations are being heard individually before the PSC. Those separate hearings will continue even as the broader discussions take place.

Companies involved in the telecommunications negotiation said they like the idea of the talks -- for now. "We're approaching [the negotiations] with an open mind and we're hopeful the process will work," said Elena French, a spokeswoman for MCI WorldCom.

In a statement, Bell Atlantic-Maryland praised the PSC for taking "more expeditious efforts for resolving the many telecommunications issues pending before it."

Bell Atlantic called on the PSC to set a specific end date for the talks, rather than allowing them to continue indefinitely.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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