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MADISON, WI - You need a Doctorate in Acronyms to figure out what's happening these days on the business end of your telephone. Here's a short course in how to read the alphabet soup of government regulatory decisions and what the latest rulings may mean to your home or business: SBC:
This is Wisconsin's largest local-service telephone company, serving about 70 percent of the state's combined residential and business lines. Once known as Southwestern Bell in parts of the country, SBC absorbed Ameritech, which in turn had absorbed the former Wisconsin Bell. RBOCs:
These are the Regional Bell Operating Companies, which were created in 1984 when a federal court ruling busted up 'Ma Bell.' SBC is one such company; Verizon is another. CLECs:
Those are Competitive Local Exchange Carriers, a collective term for the scores of smaller phone companies that are nipping at the RBOCs heels. TDS Metrocom and Choice One Communications are CLECs with significant numbers of Wisconsin customers. PSC:
This is the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, which s-l-o-w-l-y regulates telecommunications companies in the state.
This is the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates telecoms nationwide, most often by throwing up its hands and telling the states to figure it out. AT&T, MCI and Sprint:
These are phone companies that account for 71 percent of Wisconsin's long-distance traffic. That may not be true for long, however, if the FCC ratifies the latest PSC decision that would allow SBC to finally get into the long-distance business.UNE-P:
This is short for Unbundled Networks Elements-Platform, which is phonespeak for the practice of delivering telecom services entirely through leased pieces of another company's system. The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 made it possible for the CLECs to lease lines and equipment from the RBOCs. The PSC recently confirmed that UNE-P still makes sense, even though some of the CLECs have been living on borrowed lines for years.
Confused yet? Sorry, only one more piece of telecom terminology to go.Section 271:
This is Section 271 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, under which SBC petitioned for the right to provide long-distance service to its local customers in Wisconsin .
Four years later, the PSC has recommended to the FCC that SBC be allowed to offer long-distance service. That was based on the PSC's conclusion using a 14-point checklist contained in section 271 that SBC has opened its system up for competition. Most of the CLECs and the long-distance carriers don't agree, so they'll probably spend more on legal fees to challenge the issue at the FCC.
Having another long-distance choice may not seem like such a big deal in an era when many people own cell phones that give them 5,000 night and weekend minutes per month. That's a lot of calls to Aunt Martha in Seattle . But for the thousands of customers who really want one phone bill from one company, the entry of SBC in the long-distance market may be The One True Answer.
Getting into long-distance will probably lose money for SBC, at first. The company will be forced to virtually give away its long-distance services to gain market share. But that should be good for consumers. Meanwhile, the CLECs will continue to compete for SBC's share of local service. That should be good for consumers, too.
And everyone in the telecom business will continue to compete to offer new and better technology at a competitive price. For people who live in rural Wisconsin , that could mean quicker access to broadband Internet service.
Burnie Bridge, the chairwoman of the PSC, said it best when the commission voted unanimously to recommend SBC's entry into the long-distance market: "Our goal in this entire process is to create a competitive environment so Wisconsin has a telecommunications infrastructure that supports high-tech, high-wage jobs and allows businesses and families to choose from a variety of services at competitive rates."
The ABCs of telecom competition in Wisconsin has been a confusing mess for years. Perhaps the latest government rulings will finally leave it to consumers to line up the letters and numbers anyway they wish.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison .