Subject to further review, administrative law judge Kim Malcolm of the California Public Utilities Commission recommended that Pac Bell retain the current rate of $24.50 per month instead of the $32.50 that the utility had proposed. The allowance for off-peak usage for no additional charge would be 200 hours instead of the 20 hours proposed by the phone company.
Malcolm left the door open to reconsider her recomendation, but only if Pacific Bell submits more evidence. Pac Bell said it remained optimistic that it could satisfy the judge's requests and still win approval for the higher rate.
Time could be running out, however, at least according to the computer companies and consumer groups, and Intel called Pac Bell's response "wishful thinking." The state's full comission is scheduled to consider Malcolm's proposal as early as December 20, though any vote could be postponed.
In her 39-page ruling, mailed this week, the judge also found deficiencies in Pac Bell's ISDN customer and installation service, and she proposed measures for the phone company to improve its service by March 1997. One of them: that Pac Bell agree to install an ISDN line within ten days or offer a discount on the service. Many Pac Bell customers have complained that it takes weeks to get an ISDN line installed, although the company says it has improved its service.
In her ruling, Malcolm said there are "no economic alternatives to ISDN services for residential and small-business customers who seek high-speed data transmission."
Pac Bell originally filed for the rate increase last year. But the computer industry immediately set out to block the increase, arguing that it would stifle demand for Net access. This summer, Pac Bell proposed a compromise to end the dispute but later withdrew it.
Intel, which has led the effort against Pac Bell in California, has launched similar campaigns to block ISDN rate increases by companies in Washington, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. So far, those rate increases haven't been approved either.
"When adopted by the full commission, this proposed decision will be a big win for the California online user, a win for Silicon Valley, and even a win for Pacific Bell if it recognizes the opportunity we believe exists to provide ISDN services to speed-hungry Internet users," said Dhruv Khanna, an Intel attorney.
According to Compaq, the commission has received more than 1,200 emails, faxes, and other forms of informal protests.
"Consumers should not have to pay the high prices sought by Pacific Bell and be subjected to delays and inconvenience when they order ISDN," said Barry Fraser, a lawyer with the Utility Consumers Action Network.
The fight between the computer and telephone companies is not limited to ISDN rates. As previously reported, the computer industry has formed an organization called the DATA Coalition to block any plans to raise rates for Internet access over analog phone lines.