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AT&T could be liable for unpaid fees

The company releases new, higher figures about how much money it has saved in regulatory fees by using techniques either banned or under review by federal regulators.

AT&T disclosed Monday that it had avoided paying more than a half-billion dollars in regulatory fees by using techniques either banned or under review by federal regulators.

That estimate includes about $200 million in access charges, which are what local phone companies charge long-distance providers to connect to their customers. AT&T stopped paying these fees about eight months ago, claiming an exemption, because many of its customers' calls travel over the unregulated Internet. The FCC recently disagreed, triggering lawsuits from two local phone companies seeking the money, as the FCC suggested in its ruling.

The $200 million estimate is much higher than what the carrier previously estimated that it owes the nation's leading phone companies. An AT&T spokesman said Monday morning that he was unable to explain the varying estimates.

AT&T avoided paying even more in fees on its prepaid calling-card business, the carrier said. Since 1999, AT&T hasn't paid $215 million in access charges nor about $140 million in Universal Service Fund contributions, which finance such things as rural telephone service expansion. AT&T says its prepaid calling cards are exempt, because calls first travel to a call center, where dialers listen to commercial announcements, then are routed onward.

"These savings have permitted us to sell prepaid cards to consumers and distributors at prices below what otherwise would have been possible," the carrier said Monday in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. "An adverse ruling by the FCC could therefore increase the future cost of providing prepaid cards...as well as potentially exposing us to retroactive liability."

The FCC has been reviewing the calling-card matter for about a year. Monday marked the first time that AT&T disclosed how much it avoided paying on its calling cards and many of its Internet phone calls.