The decision stemmed in part from a campaign by consumer advocate groups that had pressed the Federal Communications Commission to make the information more accessible.
"Often you see an ad on TV that seems too good to be true," said Cheryl Leanza, an attorney with the Media Access Project, a public interest legal group that represented the consumer advocates. "This will be a check on the advertisements."
The Washington-based Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), which already provides a Web site and newsletter scrutinizing the telcos' calling plans, took the lead in pressing for the new order.
The decision is not wholly final yet, however. The ruling follows a series of related decisions in the FCC and federal courts, leaving a federal appeals court with final say over whether today's order can go forward
Leanza said that the court was unlikely to undermine the rate disclosure portion of today's order, but that the judges could ask the FCC to reconsider the action.
New rights for new telcos In a separate decision today, the FCC approved new rules that will make it easier for new start-up local phone and data companies to connect to the established Baby Bell networks.
Companies such as E.Spire, McLeodUSA, and even MCI WorldCom need to physically hook up their equipment to the dominant local phone company's networks to provide competitive local voice or data service.
But as the market has grown, the physical space inside the Bell companies' central offices has dwindled. Competitors have argued that they have often been shut out of offices, or have been charged prohibitively high rents for the "co-location" space needed to set up their networks.
By making it easier, and potentially cheaper, for new companies to connect their own equipment to the Bell networks, the order will help the spread of competition in local voice and data markets.
"This will make co-location better, faster, and cheaper," said Dhruv Khanna, executive vice president of Covad Communications, a company that competes with the Bells to provide high-speed data connections. "This really puts us in more of a parity situation with the incumbent [local phone companies]."
No word on Bells' DSL
The Commission again put off a controversial decision over whether Bell companies can offer their own high-speed DSL Internet service without being forced to resell it at wholesale rates to their competitors.
DSL, or digital subscriber line, is a technology that allows existing phone lines to be upgraded to handle fast Net connections and voice traffic simultaneously.
Last year, the FCC proposed that Bell companies such as Bell Atlantic and SBC Communications set up separate subsidiaries for their high-speed Internet offerings, or else be forced to let rivals resell their DSL service.
This proposal has been hotly contested by the big long distance companies and smaller rivals, who say it would effectively allow the Bells control of the rapidly growing DSL market.
But the Bells say that they do not have control of the high-speed Internet market, since cable-based services and other DSL companies already exist, and so they should not be subject to the more restrictive regulation.
The FCC is working on a broader order determining which elements of their networks the Bells should be forced to resell to rivals, and will not deal with the DSL subsidiary issue until this has been completed, FCC sources said.