Politics & Government

Bill could increase land-line phone fee

ATLANTA — A complicated bill that could change the way telephone companies pay each other for network access — and which would bump up a hidden fee for land-line customers — is working its way through the Georgia General Assembly.

The bill could also make it harder for state regulators to act on customer complaints about phone service, though that element of the legislation will probably be changed before final passage. Gov. Sonny Perdue has expressed concern about that provision, and his office said it hopes to see a change before the Legislature finalizes the bill and sends it to the governor for his signature.

When House Bill 168 was introduced last year, it did away with an access fee embedded in land-line telephone customers’ bills. The fee subsidizes rural telephone companies, and the bill was part of a Republican-led effort to cut back on those subsidies.

But as the bill worked its way through the House of Representatives, then the Senate, then the House again, it changed. Now it expands the “universal access fee” charged on land lines, increasing it by some 23 cents a month for the average customer. It would also lower what the state’s largest phone company, AT&T, pays rural providers for access to their networks and, thus, their customers.

“If you call Atlanta from Macon and you go through another phone company, AT&T has to pay another phone company a fee,” said Bill Edge, a spokesman for the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in Georgia.

In many cases, that “intrastate access rate” is higher than what AT&T pays to put a long-distance call through cross country, Edge said.With that rate going down in the bill, rural companies will get less money from AT&T. So, to keep them from jacking up rates on their rural customers, the long-standing “universal access fee” included on all land-line customers’ bills will go up a bit.

The change would increase fee collections by more than $125 million during the next 10 years, according to Public Service Commission estimates, and that money flows to the smaller phone companies.

With some 4.4 million land-line customers in Georgia, that works out to an increase of about 23 cents a month for the average customer. Though a federal version of this fee may appear on customers’ bills, the state one does not. In fact, state law forbids it from being itemized on bills, Edge said.

Wireless customers don’t pay this “universal access fee,” Edge said. Only land-line customers do.

The changes in House Bill 168 are part of a compromise between AT&T and the rural companies, represented by the Georgia Telephone Association. There’s been a give-and-take for years between the need to have affordable telephone service throughout Georgia and the resistance allowing big-city customers to subsidize those operations.

“(The smaller companies are) being subsidized ... because the cost of providing rural telephone service is higher than in the big city,” Edge said.

The effort delves into telecommunications regulations that can be brutally hard to understand. Even a four-page Public Service Commission report explaining the much longer bill is full of insider jargon used to track a convoluted flow of money.

“The proposed legislation is similar to the Telecommunications and Competition Development Act passed in 1995 by the Georgia Legislature (see OCGA § 46-5-166 and 46-5-167),” the explanation begins. “Like the 1995 Act, the proposed legislation requires Tier 2 Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (“ILECs”) to reduce intrastate access rates to parity with the companies’ comparable interstate access rates over a period of five years.”

Those Tier 2 local carriers are generally smaller phone companies, some of which operate in Middle Georgia.