The regional Bell companies, such as BellAtlantic and SBC, are barred by federal law from entering long distance markets in their home territory unless they have opened up their local markets to competition.
But with only a few exceptions, federal and state regulators have said Bell companies have not opened their markets enough to be given the long distance nod. On Wednesday, Kansas regulators said Southwestern Bell was only a little more than halfway though a 14-point federal checklist of items that measure how well they have accommodated potential rivals.
SBC-owned Southwestern Bell is now hoping to achieve in Missouri what it failed to do in Kansas. The company is well along the way to opening its networks to competitors, even if that competition is not appearing quickly in some areas, officials said.
"We've got very strong competition for the business market now in Missouri," said Amy White, a spokeswoman for Southwestern Bell. "Competition in the residential areas is still very slim. But we can't control the decisions of other companies deciding not to enter that market."
The company has signed agreements with 53 potential local competitors in the state, 43 of which have been given the go-ahead by state regulators to operate, White said. Southwestern Bell has lost about 35,000 lines--of a total of 2.5 million total state lines--to these rivals, she said.
Missouri state regulators said they have not yet done any review of the company's efforts to open its markets, and would start reviewing the checklist over the next 120 days.
Many analysts say that once the Bell companies are allowed into the long distance market, another round of price cuts is likely. By the same token, consumers and businesses are likely to see their local phone bills fall once the local phone market becomes as competitive as the long distance market.
But competitors--primarily new local phone networks, or established long-distance companies--have said the Bells are dragging their heels opening local markets across the country.
Already the usual array of critics is readying their opposition in Missouri.
"We were very surprised to see they had filed in Missouri," said Sprint spokeswoman Eileen Dougherty. The problems for competitors in that state are almost identical to those in Kansas, where regulators denied the company's application, she added.
Southwestern Bell's network operating support systems make it difficult for competitors to get billing and other information from the company, Dougherty said. "It's all the same computer system," she said. "Competitors are unable to connect."
Missouri regulators have 120 days to review SBC's application. If they find that the company has not yet opened its markets far enough, SBC officials will work with the Commission to plug the holes in the application before continuing to the Federal Communications Commission , White said.
Southwestern Bell previously applied for long distance access in several other markets. State regulators in Oklahoma gave the company the thumbs-up, but the FCC recently denied the application. The company has now gone back to Oklahoma regulators to restart the process from the beginning.