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PacBell Moves to Aid Competition

Telecom: A new regional center to switch consumers to rivals will help the firm enter long-distance market.

June 26, 1997|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pacific Bell, much criticized for foot-dragging in allowing other companies into its local telephone markets, said Wednesday that it has created a regional center in Anaheim where 700 people will work to switch consumers to rivals.

For customers, it brings closer the day when competition for local service is similar to the long-distance market, in which hundreds of firms nationwide vie for business.

Local providers such as PacBell are being allowed to enter the potentially lucrative long-distance markets--but only on condition they first allow competition in their local regions. As a result, competitors are buying phone time from PacBell at a discount and trying to resell local service to individual customers under their own brand names. But for the last six months, many have accused PacBell of intentionally snarling the transfers, discouraging customers from choosing rivals.

PacBell, in announcing the new regional center to process the switch-overs, sought to defuse its critics. "We have every incentive to make this work," said Bob Ferguson, regional president for Southern California. "The sooner we get this working, the quicker we can get into long distance."

The new center will supplement a 200-employee operation in San Francisco that had been fielding all of the transfer requests.

The new center is expected to be fully operational by August, PacBell spokeswoman Linda Bonniksen said.

PacBell executives say they are processing orders as fast as they can and say any problems were inadvertent. They contend their rivals are complaining to delay PacBell's entry into the lucrative long-distance market.

So far, PacBell says, it has lost only about 80,000 customers, less than 1% of its total.

Competitors reacted coolly to Wednesday's announcement. "Promises, promises," said Jim Lewis, MCI Communications Corp.'s Western regional executive. "We'll just have to wait and see" if access actually improves.

MCI fired the first critical salvo against PacBell in December, accusing the company of a "calculated campaign of delay and discrimination" in a 30-page filing with the Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco. MCI told regulators that PacBell customer service agents gave out false information about MCI's local Home Phone Service and that about 20 customers lost their dial tones altogether when they asked to be switched to MCI.

The company recently stopped taking new orders for local service because it said PacBell couldn't process the orders efficiently.

AT&T and Sprint Corp. followed with similar complaints that were aired at a PUC hearing in May. The commissioners have yet to issue a proposed decision.

This month, Caltech International Telecom Corp. of Walnut Creek filed a $25-million antitrust suit that accuses PacBell of illegally maintaining its monopoly in local access.

PUC spokeswoman Diane Dienstein said PacBell, in setting up the new center, appears to be trying to speed up its processing of customers' requests.

PacBell said it hopes to convince regulators by the end of the year that it has sufficiently opened up the local market to competitors. It then plans to apply to the Federal Communications Commission for permission to provide long-distance service to Californians.

So far the only local phone companies to seek such FCC approval is Southwestern Bell, which wants to provide long-distance service in Oklahoma. The FCC is expected to deny that request. PacBell and Southwestern Bell are both subsidiaries of SBC Communications Inc. in San Antonio.

Times staff writer Karen Kaplan contributed to this report.

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