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Bell Atlantic plans long distance play

The baby Bell plans to file with New Jersey state regulators for permission to enter the state's long distance telephone markets

Bell Atlantic said today it will file with New Jersey state regulators for permission to enter that state's long distance telephone market, and has laid out a series of promises company officials hope will help reach that goal.

The move represents the company's third attempt to gain state approval to enter long distance markets in its home territory. Earlier filings in New York and Pennsylvania are still under consideration by regulators.

"We're working closely with [the state Board of Public Utilities] and our competitors to ensure that Bell Atlantic's long distance [proposed] filing will receive the Board's support and the approval of the Federal Communications Commission," said Bell Atlantic CEO William Freeman in a statement.

"The sooner we're allowed into the long distance business, the sooner we can provide customers with a full range of communications products and services," Freeman added.

Bell Atlantic, like the other dominant local telephone companies around the U.S., are required under the 1996 Telecommunications Act to open up their home markets to competition before being allowed to offer long distance service to their existing customers.

Each company is required to satisfy every point on a 14-step checklist, ensuring that they are opening their facilities, sharing their network resources, and genuinely allowing competitors into the market.

The baby Bells have filed for permission to enter long distance markets in more than a dozen states. To date, none of these petitions have been granted. Most recently, the FCC blocked BellSouth's entry into Louisiana's long-distance market. BellSouth asked federal regulators to reconsider that decision last week.

Bell Atlantic will work with New Jersey regulators to prove it is opening its local markets, in return for the state Board of Public Utilities' endorsement of the company's federal petition to offer long distance service. The company will likely not make its official request for state endorsement until mid-1999, officials said.

The company will package pieces of its residential services, such as Caller ID, with ISDN high-speed data service for competitors for a low monthly fee. Officials also said they will commit to developing a way for competitors' billing and operations systems to communicate electronically with Bell Atlantic's system. Much of this work has already been done, officials added.

"New Jersey consumers will realize the promise of the Telecommunications Act when all players are allowed to offer all services," Freeman said. "Bell Atlantic is committed to becoming a full service provider, able to offer all our customers the benefits of choice, increased competition and the convenience of one-stop shopping."

New Jersey citizens spend about $8 billion on telecommunications services annually, with about $3.8 billion of that going toward long distance calls. Bell Atlantic has sold about 35,000 lines to potential competitors for resale, which company officials say underscores their commitment to competition. The figure marks only a small fraction of the state's 2.5 million total lines, however.

Meanwhile, regulators are also scrutinizing Bell Atlantic's business practices as a result of its proposed merger with GTE, the second-largest local phone company in the nation.

Public comments on the merger are due to the FCC by December 23.