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Pac Bell pitches ISDN plan--finally

After much negotiation, Pacific Bell officially submitted a new ISDN rate plan.

Pacific Bell has officially submitted a revised plan to California's Public Utilities Commission to raise ISDN rates, but only after heavy negotiations with a coalition of proponents for the high-bandwidth service who had loudly protested the Baby Bell's original tariff plans.

As the ISDN provider to the state with the heaviest Net traffic in the country, Pac Bell is possibly the highest-profile example of nationwide fights over charges for Integrated Services Digital Network connections. In this case, Pac Bell tried to both raise rates--which it said was necessary to expand service and remain profitable--and avoid the public relations fiasco that might be caused by publicly fighting with consumer and industry groups who want rates to stay down.

At the same time it submitted its plan Friday, the Baby Bell requested that the utilities commission cancel next week's open hearings on the rate changes. ISDN rate changes must be approved by the utilities commission in each individual state; if a Baby Bell serves several states, new rates can take effect only in each state with approval of its utilities commission.

Pac Bell and several parties in the six-month California fight have agreed on a new residential rate of $29.50 a month--an increase of $5--and throws in 200 free hours of evening and weekend usage for the all-digital phone and data lines. The proposal sets installation fee at $125, with no waiver available for a long-term service commitment.

The plan was endorsed by six parties, including Pac Bell, the California Cable Television Association, and the California ISDN Users' Group.

Bob Larribeau, one of the CIUG's directors, said the agreement met all of his group's main criteria, including the 200 free off-peak hours and a resale discount that would allow other carriers to buy the Baby Bell's lines.

"This potentially could bring competitive ISDN into the California market," Larribeau said. "It's always been our feeling that competition would solve the tariff problems."

But the deal still does not meet the demands of other critics--including Compaq Computer, Intel, and the Utility Consumer Action Network--all of which want to see a basic flat rate with no per-hour charges whatsoever. The opponents to the proposal also argue that specific guidelines need to be set for customer service.

The utilities commission must now decide whether to go forward with full hearings, previously scheduled to begin next Monday.

If approved, the proposal will also give the CIUG authority to recommend advisory panel members to review Pac Bell's ISDN customer service, suggest improvements, and set service targets for average installation and repair time. The proposal does not clarify if the Baby Bell will be legally held to the panel's recommendations, but Larribeau feels the Baby Bell has negotiated so far in good faith.

"Pac Bell has filed their numbers, so they can't play any games at this point," Larribeau said. "There was a tremendous amount of response generated by this tariff. I don't think Pac Bell wants to generate that again."

Related stories:
Firm says hardware clears ISDN hurdles
Talks deadlocked on Pac Bell ISDN
ISDN: the speed you need