SBC to Ask Illinois Commerce Commission for 'More Flexibility'

BY MARY WISNIEWSKI Business Reporter Chicago Sun-Times

SBC will ask the Illinois Commerce Commission today to declare the Chicago marketplace competitive to ease rules on how SBC can charge for residential local service.

"It's like asking the commission to acknowledge the sky is blue," said Carrie Hightman, president of SBC Illinois. "It's to acknowledge that customers have a choice in phone service."

Hightman said the requested ICC ruling would permit the Texas-based phone giant to compete freely with unregulated competitors like wireless and cable companies.

Hightman said the requested ruling would not totally deregulate SBC in the Chicago area -- since the ICC would still look at its rates -- but would give SBC more flexibility.

"It will enable us to price according to the market, whatever the market can bear," Hightman said.

SBC had promoted a telecommunications bill to the General Assembly last spring that would further deregulate what SBC can charge rivals and customers. SBC had argued that SBC's real competition comes from cable television companies, cell phones and the growing use of Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP.

The bill passed the Senate, but got stuck in the House.

The new request is narrower than the bill -- focusing on residential service in the most competitive Illinois market. Having the Chicago area declared competitive would allow SBC to respond in a timely way to promotional offerings from rivals. It can't do this now because of regulation, Hightman said.

The telecom bill had been criticized by the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer watchdog group, as liable to push up prices for consumers. SBC's current proposal could face similar opposition.

Hightman said she believes real competition would give consumers better value and more choice. She noted that prices in the long-distance market went down by 28 percent because of competition, while prices for wireless service, which was never really regulated, have dropped 50 percent in the past four years.

If it decides to investigate, the commission would have 180 days to review SBC's request. Hightman noted that neighboring states have reduced phone regulation.

SBC has lost 1.7 million landlines in Illinois since 2001, Hightman said. In that same time period, consumers added 3 million wireless lines, 900,000 non-SBC landlines and 1.3 million broadband connections.

In other news, SBC has reached an agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 21 on the building of Project Lightspeed, an initiative to expand SBC's fiberoptics network. The agreement would allow the company more flexible use of contractors as it deploys the initiative.

In turn, the company has agreed to rehire about 200 IBEW-represented technicians and has canceled the layoff of about 228 people who handle customer calls for network installation and repair at SBC's Lakewood Center in Hoffman Estates.

Copyright 2005, Digital Chicago Inc.

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Mary Wisniewski
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