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Pac Bell wants flat-fee hike for ISDN

Pacific Bell wants to raise the monthly fee for its ISDN services by $8 for business and residential users, but consumer groups say the flat-fee increase is still better than an earlier proposal.

Pacific Bell wants to raise the monthly charge for its ISDN services by $8 for business and residential users, but consumer groups say the flat-fee increase is still better than an earlier proposal based on usage time.

Pacific Bell will request the $8 increase in a filing with the California Public Utilities Commission. Flat monthly charges now range from $24.50 for home users to $31.65 for Centrex businesses; heavy users are also charged per minute between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The new rate would add $8 to whatever customers are now paying, translating to an increase of about 15 percent for the typical user, according to a Pacific Bell spokesperson. Per-minute fees for prime-time hours would remain in place under the proposal.

The state commission will hold hearings on Pacific Bell's suggested rates in July. If the new flat rates are approved, California ISDN users won't see the higher prices until autumn.

In December, Pacific Bell had suggested that it would charge by the minute on nights and weekends for its estimated 65,000 ISDN lines in use, a proposal that drew heavy criticism from consumer organizations. The company finally withdrew the proposed time-based charge, attributing the decision not to consumer pressure but to a new utility commission ruling in March that changed the regulations for service-related revenue.

Consumer groups are opposed to any rate increase but prefer this plan over the December proposal. "It's still too expensive," said James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology in Washington. "But it's really an improvement over their [earlier] proposal."

Pacific Bell's rates are still among the lowest in the country. Because the utility commission regulates fees for ISDN services as well as telephone rates, ISDN charges can vary wildly from state to state, even when the service is provided by the same company. Illinois and Indiana both get their ISDN service from Ameritech, for example, but Indianans pay an average of $314.83 for 100 hours while Illinois residents pay a high of $39.50 for 100 hours of two-channel, day-rate service.

"It depends on the philosophy of the local PUC," Love said. "Some think rich ISDN users should get hosed."

Southwestern Bell, which recently announced its intent to merge with Pacific Bell's parent company Pacific Telesis, is negotiating with the Texas Public Utility Commission to adopt a rate model that would apply only a monthly flat fee for its basic ISDN service. In this case, it's the utility commission that is demanding that the ISDN provider keep rates low, at about $50 a month, according to a spokeswoman for the Office of Public Utility Council, a state-run consumer advocate agency in Austin, Texas.

But for some, the higher prices are at the surface of a much deeper issue. "It's not the what, but the why," said Barry Fraser, staff attorney for San Diego-based Utility Consumers' Action Network. "[The issue] goes beyond price increases. We wonder what Pac Bell is interested in doing here. Are they interested in tying in their ISDN services with their Internet service? If so, that would be very unfair to other service providers."