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BE FAIR TO BELL COMPANIES - OPEN ALL MARKETS AT 1 TIME . . .

SHARE BE FAIR TO BELL COMPANIES - OPEN ALL MARKETS AT 1 TIME . . .

Arecent newspaper ad run by AT&T sheds more light on the Congressional debate over telecommunications policy than all the press releases and sound bites unleashed so far in this high-tech, high-stakes drama.

Unfortunately for AT&T, the message that comes through is wholly unintended.AT&T's headline blares: "How bundling all your telecommunications with AT&T can save you a bundle."

The text describes how AT&T can offer business customers virtual "one-stop shopping," with all the savings that flow from economies of scale. Toll-free 800-number service, domestic long-distance calling, international long distance, calling cards, all rolled into one seamless package for the customer.

At first glance, it sounds like a good deal.

The problem comes when consumers discover that AT&T and the other two dominant long-distance carriers want to lock out other serious competitors from the long-distance market.

The AT&T ad spotlights the central issue at stake for consumers: The long-distance carriers want to sweep into the local exchange and toll call markets assigned by regulators to the Bell companies. That's OK. The Bell companies welcome the competition.

But AT&T, MCI and Sprint want to keep the Bells out of their own markets for as long as they can, while they invade the local telephone exchanges. That's not OK, either for us or for consumers.

Every market should be opened to every competitor at the same time.

The seven regional Bell companies, which together provide local telephone service to 250 million customers throughout the United States, have been barred from offering long-distance service since 1984, the year a court order broke up the old AT&T monopoly.

But in the past 10 years, the telecommunications market has changed so much that a time traveler would find it unrecognizable.

In 1984, cellular telephones were the toys of the affluent. Today, more than 14 million Americans use cellular.

While competition is growing in the local loop, AT&T, MCI and Sprint in recent years have announced lockstep price increases that are distinctly noncompetitive. The Big Three argue that they are challenged by nearly 500 competitors.

The truth is, AT&T controls 58 percent of the long-distance market, while the average "little guy" has a market share of .03 percent.

Facing the prospect of even more local competition, the Bell companies are pushing for permission to fight for long-distance customers. That would add seven tough new competitors to a market that is 85 percent controlled by AT&T, MCI and Sprint.

To balance their entry, the Bell companies have agreed to provisions in the bills moving through Congress that would throw open their local exchanges and their toll-call business to all comers. The same services, offered to the same customers at the same time.

But AT&T, MCI and Sprint are having none of it.

They insist that the Bell companies open their local exchange and toll businesses to the long-distance companies first.

That's why the Bells, and a great many consumers, support legislation that would open all markets to all competitors simultaneously. And why we strongly object to provisions in the telecommunications bill introduced by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., that would impose tough "pre-conditions" on the Bells' entry into long-distance competition.