The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — A commission on Thursday postponed a plan to make Oklahoma the first state in the nation to have toll-free statewide long-distance telephone service after one commissioner decried what he said are misunderstandings that have led some groups to oppose the idea.
“There is some miscommunication,” Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony said before the three-member commission voted unanimously to postpone implementation of the plan from March 29 to next January.
“It will take that long for people to calm down,” Anthony said. He and Commissioner Dana Murphy said it is prudent to delay the plan while other issues that could change the regulatory landscape, including a telephone deregulation bill that is pending in the Legislature, are considered.
Anthony said he and other commissioners have received e-mails and messages from telephone customers concerned that the long-distance calling plan for land lines will raise monthly telephone rates by more than $3 per phone number, including cell phones users who already enjoy toll-free long-distance calling.
“That is a misunderstanding. It’s not a new tax. It’s not a new fee,” Anthony said. He said the commission has no taxing authority and that the $3 calculation is a reclassification of existing charges that are already paid by telephone users.
“We haven’t done a very good job of messaging what the proposal is,” Murphy said.
But AT&T;, the state’s largest telecommunications provider, and some advocacy groups, including the Oklahoma chapter of the tea party group Americans for Prosperity, claim the proposal will create a new fee and have gone on record against it.
“It’s going to raise everyone’s phone bill,” said Stuart Jolly, the organization’s state director. “It isn’t free. It’s not revenue neutral if your phone bill goes up $3 a month.”
“We think it’s a bad idea,” said Andy Morgan, spokesman for AT&T.; Morgan said the proposal would impose a new fee on every telephone number in the state, including cell phone users.
Morgan said landline use is declining in the state and that wireless service is the fastest growing sector of AT&T;’s business. He said 26 percent of all Oklahoma phone customers pay exclusively for cell phone service — the highest rate of any state.
He also denied claims by Anthony that legislation passed by the Oklahoma House on Wednesday would deregulate landline telephone service and rates in areas of the state where the commission has determined that telecommunications services are competitive.
“It has nothing to do with prices or rates,” Morgan said. The bill would merely update outdated administrative rules requiring telephone providers to submit written notice to the commission to make changes in various services, he said.
In an open letter to members of the Legislature, Anthony said AT&T; has increased its monthly local exchange rates by 39 percent in Tulsa and Oklahoma City and 71 percent in smaller communities in the past four years using deregulated rate-setting authority the company already has.
The deregulation bill is opposed by various advocacy groups, including AARP Oklahoma, which said the bill would allow telephone companies to increase rates without full notice to customers, charge any amount for deposits and charge whatever they want for inside wire maintenance plans.
The Associated Press
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