Rural telephone companies, cellular users at odds over state-wide toll-free plan's proposed fee 

As the Oklahoma Corporate Commission's telecommunications staff debates over the draft of a new toll-free policy, rural telephone companies are arguing to keep the proposal alive. Many others are in opposition to whole idea of the proposal.

"Earlier this year, staff asked the commissioners for permission to look into developing rules, with an eye looking toward making all calls in the state local, meaning no more calls in state would be long distance," said Matt Skinner, Oklahoma Corporate Commission spokesman.

To allow all calls in the state to be toll-free, every phone number with an Oklahoma area code would have to pay a monthly fee of $3.19. This includes cell and Internet phone numbers.
Speaking out against the fee, Andy Morgan, AT&T spokesman, said the proposal is a bad idea and not applicable today.

"We are talking about a service that the vast majority of people will probably won't even use," Morgan said. "Today in Oklahoma, more than 90 percent of Oklahomans have a cell phone that has some sort of plan that allows people to call nationwide, including Oklahoma as well. "¦ It's an idea that really doesn't apply to very many people, we don't think."

Oklahoma has one of the highest percentages of people "cutting the cord," losing their landlines in favor of a cell phone, and Morgan said it is unfair for consumers to have to pay for a service they will not use.

Among those also against the proposal are: Americans for Prosperity, Mid-American Communications Alliance, The State Chamber of Oklahoma and Sen. Joe Sweeden, D-Pawhuska.

"The OCC plan is therefore proposing that taxpayers continue to subsidize a failing business model despite a clear preference expressed by consumers and businesses for mobile and Internet communication," said Stuart Jolly, director of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

Centered in this proposal is the Oklahoma High Cost Fund, a statewide fund all landline users pay that was developed after the disbandment of AT&T in the 1990s to help rural telephone companies stay in business, Skinner said. This fee would replace the old fee for the Oklahoma High Cost Fund, making it revenue neutral.

Representing a number of rural telephone companies, attorney Ron Comingdeer said this proposal would help rural Oklahoma bring in more businesses.

"When businesses look to locate, they look at the type of geographic areas (that) has access to them, and if there are any barriers, such as toll-calling or additional charges to call them, they are going to locate in metropolitan areas," Comingdeer said. "We think we got the quality employees, we think we got the lifestyle, we think we got a lot other benefits to provide them in rural Oklahoma if we can make them get their communications needs met. We believe one of them is a lower calling plan."

Comingdeer said if the proposal passes, the wireless telephone companies would pay for the same calling interexchange service the rural telephone companies have been paying for years by themselves.

"This proposal has the potential to narrow the competitive advantage the wireless phone companies have over the rural telephone companies," he said.

The final draft of this proposal has not been finalized by the staff, and many factors are still up for debate.

Comments on the proposal may be filed until Monday. The final proposal is scheduled to be heard and voted on by the commissioners March 29.

The proposal can be viewed online on the Oklahoma Corporate Commission's Web site, "LeighAnne Manwarren

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