Political fight keeps telecommunication competition at bay on Kenai Peninsula

Bill's progress on hold

Posted: Monday, May 13, 2002

A political fight between the Alaska Senate and House could mean decreased telecommunications competition on the Kenai Peninsula.

A measure to continue funding the Regulatory Commission of Alaska has stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the committee chair seems content to keep it that way. However, the House of Representatives is trying to find a way around the roadblock.

Wrangell Republican Robin Taylor, who chairs the committee, has yet to schedule the bill for a hearing. With the legislative session set to end Tuesday, it's possible it could die there.

''There's a tremendous undercurrent (of opposition) out there you haven't heard about,'' Taylor said Thursday, although he declined to specify.

However, Gov. Tony Knowles, other lawmakers and utility companies don't buy it. They say Taylor is only looking out for Alaska Communications Systems, the state's largest telecommunications provider and a campaign contributor to Taylor.

The House Judiciary Committee took action Saturday to attach funding for the commission to an unrelated bill. The move would allow the commission to continue to be funded, despite Taylor's opposition.

''This is a case of a narrow special interest holding up a bill. (ACS) doesn't like the rulings (from the RCA)," said Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage.

The measure passed the House 35-1 in April, but has yet to be discussed in Taylor's committee.

Locally, the loss of the commission could severely hamper efforts by GCI to move into the local phone market, according to GCI vice president Dana Tindall.

"This could have a big impact on the the Kenai Peninsula," Tindall said.

Her company contends that ACS is only trying to shut down the RCA so it won't have to abide by its decisions.

The main point of contention has to do with rulings sent down recently by the RCA regarding how much ACS can charge its competitors to use existing phone lines. Under state law, ACS has to allow its competition to use its phone lines, at a rate set by the RCA. Currently, that rate is $14.92 per line, far too low, according to ACS

Tindall said ACS is only trying to stall the bill in order to try and get a new commission that would be more friendly to its position.

"They want a whole new commission. They're trying to roll back the clock on competition," she said.

Tindall said if the measure does indeed end up stalling in the Senate, GCI may have to put its plans to expand to the peninsula on hold. Currently, ACS is trying to keep GCI from using its lines on the peninsula, and if the commission were to be shut down, she said, GCI would have no recourse to challenge ACS.

The fight in the Legislature is still far from over. Knowles, upset that the commission could be jeopardy because of one committee chair failing to allow the bill to move, has threatened to call a special session if the matter is not resolved.

''I'm not going to let the Regulatory Commission of Alaska be buried anonymously,'' Knowles said last week. ''However they vote on it is fine, but they are going to vote on it.''

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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