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AT&T Slammed for Demanding Regulators Force Competition to Raise Rates

Chickamauga Telephone Cooperative office (Courtesy: WRCB-Chattanooga)

AT&T and some of Georgia’s cable operators are under attack by telephone customers outraged to learn of a plan to force two independent phone companies to raise their rates because some think they charge too little.

Residents packed the Chickamauga Civic Center Monday night to loudly protest an effort by AT&T and the Georgia Cable TV Association to force both Chickmauga and Ringgold Telephone to raise their rates, in some cases by 100 percent.

“We’re here today because another company has complained about Chickamauga Telephone rates [claiming] that they are too low,” said Chickamauga city superintendent of schools Melody Day. “Maybe it’s just that their rates are too high.”

Retirees complained the rate increases demanded by AT&T and cable operators were unaffordable, with residential customers facing hikes of 42% for phone service. AT&T claims both phone companies are subsidizing their rates with money from the Universal Service Fund to an artificially low level. AT&T rates are considerably higher, and now AT&T wants the two independents to raise their rates accordingly.

If AT&T has their way with the Georgia Public Service Commission, Chickamauga residential customers currently paying $13.30 per month will be billed $18.83 per month for basic phone service with a limited local calling area. Business customer rates would double from $20.40 to $40.80 per month.

Local businesses and politicians are complaining loudly about the proposal, and want AT&T to mind its own business.

AT&T does not directly compete with landline service in the area, considered a suburb of nearby Chattanooga, Tenn. But cable operators do compete and AT&T sells cell phone service locally.

“It’s important for the Public Service Commission to be able to hear from our constituents around the state,” said PSC Chairman Tim Echols. “And we’re glad people packed the auditorium tonight.”

State regulators told the Times Free Press the Commission was unlikely to approve the kind of rate increase being demanded by AT&T. But they may approve a cut in state subsidies received by Chickamauga and Ringgold telephone companies, which would likely force both to raise rates anyway.

Chickamauga city manager John Culpepper said the city alone is looking at paying $200 more per month — money that will ultimately fall on the taxpayer. Culpepper says independent small businesses are already having a hard time competing with corporate America.

“When you double their rates, it is another financial impact.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WRCB Chattanooga Walker County phone customers fighting rate increase 8-13-12.mp4

WRCB in Chattanooga reports on the unrest among phone customers in Chickamauga, Ga. over a plan by AT&T and Georgia cable companies to get regulators to force their local telephone cooperative to increase rates by as much as double. (4 minutes)

AT&T and Georgia Cable Lobby Try to Force Independent Telcos to Raise Rates

Normally, telephone companies looking for a rate increase file a request themselves with state regulators to charge customers more for service. But in Georgia, AT&T, Comcast, and the state cable lobbying group are asking the Georgia Public Service Commission (GPSC) to order two rural phone companies to raise rates because they are not “charging enough” for phone service, when compared with cable telephone services and AT&T.

The Ringgold Telephone Company (RTC) and Chickamauga Telephone Company both argue the action is anti-competitive.

“By forcing [both companies] to increase rates, these competitors are seeking to make wireless and cable companies more attractive to consumers,” says the Don’t Raise My Rate website.

The independent phone companies are vehemently against raising their rates, and executives at both companies are outraged AT&T and the state’s cable companies are literally trying to force the GPSC to order rate increases on residential and business customers.

“It’s totally unprecedented,” Phil Erli, executive vice president at RTC told the Times Free Press.  “It is ludicrous and illogical.”

The Georgia Public Service Commission will decide on Oct. 16 whether the rate increases are justified, following local public hearings Aug. 13.

AT&T, which is driving the campaign to force customers to pay higher rates, says they are pressing the case because both companies unfairly charge substantially lower rates than AT&T does in Georgia.

Peter F. Martin, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs in Georgia openly admits he wants both companies to charge essentially the same prices AT&T bills its customers in other areas of the state.

“The premise of my recommendation is that [the two phone companies] raise rates to roughly the same levels that are being charged by other local exchange carriers in surrounding areas,” Martin testified before the GPSC. “In other words, my recommendation is that [the two phone companies] increase their own end-user rates to market-based levels comparable to what other carriers are charging their subscribers.”

For customers of Chickamauga Telephone, that would amount to a 42% rate increase on residential customers, 100% on business customers. Customers of RTC would pay 20 percent more for residential service, 37% more for business service.

AT&T claims both companies, in deeply rural Georgia, are tapping into the state’s rural service fund and are receiving some of the largest state-mandated telecom subsidies, which are funded by all of Georgia’s phone companies and ratepayers. But both companies claim they have spent a large portion of those funds repairing damages to their rural networks incurred from a series of tornadoes which hit the area two years in a row.

The state cable lobbying group, the Cable Television Association of Georgia (CTAG) also has a dog in this fight. Comcast Cable, the dominant provider in Georgia, directly competes with both phone companies. They support AT&T’s demands that both phone companies hike their rates. It is not difficult to understand why:

Residential Service With Calling Features:

CHICKAMAUGA TEL TODAY

CHICKAMAUGA TEL

AT&T PROPOSED RATE

COMCAST’S CURRENT RATE

EPB

$31.75

$37.28

$34.95

$22.99

Business Service With Calling Features:

CHICKAMAUGA TEL TODAY

CHICKAMAUGA TEL

AT&T PROPOSED

COMCAST’S CURRENT RATE

EPB

$88.85

$113.30

$49.95

$35.99

(EPB, a publicly-owned provider from nearby Chattanooga, Tenn., also offers service in some areas.)

Chickamauga Telephone executives argue Georgia’s telephone deregulation policies are heavily weighted in favor of huge phone and cable companies and leave independent, rural phone companies with no new revenue opportunities. Chickamauga argues AT&T and the cable industry are using legislatively imposed “unfunded mandates” to win favor and additional profits for themselves and their shareholders, with no resulting savings for Georgia ratepayers, especially in rural areas.

If AT&T and cable operators have their way, both independent phone companies “would be priced out of the competitive market,” and “would soon find [themselves] out of business.”

“If you lived down here and you had a phone with us and your rates went up, how would you respond?” asked Ted Austin, a spokesman for Chickamauga Telephone. “Nobody wants their bills to go up, especially when it’s not something that Chickamauga Telephone is asking for.”

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