Phone charges may be on rise
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Monthly phone bills in the Tampa Bay area could rise as much as $5 over the next five years under a plan overwhelmingly approved by the House on Friday.
The measure, opposed by consumer groups and the attorney general, appears headed for passage after weeks of uncertainty. The Senate plans to vote as early as Monday.
The higher cost of basic phone service is supposed to be offset by cheaper long distance calls within Florida. No longer would phoning Miami cost more than phoning New York.
Most legislators and phone company lobbyists insist that the average consumer will save money in the long run, or at least break even. "The savings will flow through to the customers," said Rep. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah.
Opponents strongly disagree.
People who have only basic phone service and rarely call long distance will pay more, complained Attorney General Bob Butterworth. Consumer groups worry that phone companies won't keep their promise to lower rates for a significant period of time.
"Many of our citizens already cannot afford telephone service and the problem will become far worse if rates are increased," Butterworth wrote to House and Senate leaders. He estimates 7 to 25 percent of Floridians might be forced to cancel service.
The House passed the bill 103-12. If the Senate approves, the bill goes to Gov. Jeb Bush.
Bush was leaning in favor of the bill if the Legislature gives the Public Service Commission ultimate control of the rate changes, said state Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, who is sponsoring the Senate proposal.
That provision was added Friday in the House and will be added in the Senate next week. Bush spokeswoman Liz Hirst said the governor is monitoring the bill but would not comment.
Without the legislation, the Public Service Commission does not have the authority to take up issues of local rates or access fees. If the bill becomes law, the PSC would decide how much the rates would change, if at all.
Mike Twomey, executive director of the consumer group Florida Utility Watch, called the PSC provision a sham. "They have no discretion to decide what's fair and reasonable," Twomey said of the PSC.
The PSC would give political cover to politicians uneasy about raising phone rates in an election year.
The Legislature opened up the local market to competition in 1995 but capped rates from 1995 to 2000 for most companies and 2001 for the state's largest company, BellSouth.
The proposal requires the three largest local phone companies -- Verizon, BellSouth and Sprint -- to reduce the fees they charge long distance companies for access to their networks.
Local fees would rise for residential customers and small businesses -- those with just a single phone line -- but not big businesses, which telephone companies say pay more than their fair share.
Supporters say the changes will promote competition among local phone companies because the rate increases would mean they could afford to offer the local service. Companies that offer local service say they are losing money.
They hope that within two years consumers could have several options, as they have with long distance companies.
"It will ultimately encourage competition," said Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City. "Imagine how low rates would go if we have competition?"
Verizon, which has 2-million customers in the Tampa Bay area, estimates it would increase the monthly fee by $1 every year for five years. The legislation allows more low-income Floridians to be eligible for discounts for phone service, up to $12 on monthly bills.
-- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
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