Phone competitors testify at hearing on regulatory commission

Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- The head of the state's largest phone company said actions of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska threaten consumers' access to quality phone service over the long-term.

The company's chief rival said the commission is performing well and doing away with it will not solve any problems companies may have with the agency.

Representatives of Alaska Communications Systems, the dominant player in Alaska's telephone market, and rival General Communications Inc. testified Thursday in Anchorage before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

At issue is legislation to extend the regulatory commission beyond a June 30 sunset date.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, helped block a bill to extend the life of the commission during legislative sessions that ended in May.

Gov. Tony Knowles has called lawmakers back into session Monday to once again take up the issue. Without passage of such a bill, the agency will enter a one-year phase out period and then shut down.

ACS President Wes Carson told the committee the regulatory status quo is unacceptable.

''We read the RCA's goal to be forcing competition at any cost -- to ACS, and ultimately, to the consumer,'' Carson said.

The company has been unhappy with rulings in which the commission refused to allow ACS to charge the price it believes is warranted for competitors to access to its lines.

While such decisions may be good for consumers in the short-run, they threaten the company's long-term financial health and its ability to continue making investments that benefit Alaskans, Carson said.

Dana Tindall, a senior vice president at GCI, said allowing the commission to die, or having a new governor appoint new commissioners, would not result in a different outcome for ACS.

She said the commission has simply been following federal law, and in its absence, the Federal Communication Commission and the courts would step in. Having all new commissioners would only exacerbate complaints some regulated companies have about delays, she said.

''It is not surprising that utilities are upset with the RCA,'' Tindall said. ''The RCA's job is to regulate utilities in the consumer's interest.''

She called companies' complaints as predictable as teen-agers' gripes about parents and homework.

Taylor, R-Wrangell, said he has not favored ending the RCA altogether or removing all its commissioners. Taylor accused Tindall and RCA Commission Chairwoman Nan Thompson of spreading that ''fabrication.''

Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, came to Tindall's defense, saying he had heard a member of the Legislature raise the demise of the RCA as a possibility.

Knowles had proposed a four-year extension of the commission, and the House passed that bill 35-1. After being forced into a special session on the issue, Taylor's committee eventually voted for a three-month extension, but other lawmakers would not agree to such a short time.

Carson said he wants the extension to be for a short enough period that there will continue to be pressure to address problems with the commission. Carson said the commission at times appears to be making law, rather than just implementing it.

ACS staff also complained Thursday the commission is inconsistent in its compliance with open meetings laws and has an inconsistent policy on ex parte communication. That is communication between regulated parties and the commission outside of official hearings.

Taylor and Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, grilled Tindall about a trip Thompson, the commission chairwoman, made to a remote fishing lodge GCI owns near Dillingham.

Tindall said the trip was a response to a request from U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens that GCI provide a crash course in telecommunications to a member of his staff.

Tindall said she decided it would be better for a neutral party, Thompson, to provide that, so the company arranged for Thompson, Stevens' staffer and several GCI officials to spend two nights at the lodge.

Tindall said they did not discuss any cases GCI had pending before the regulatory commission, and Thompson later decided she needed to pick up her own costs for the trip and did so.

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