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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A Senate committee voted Friday to give Utah's telephone utility the freedom to establish its own pricing and offer new phone and Internet services without having to go before regulators each time for approval.
The sweeping telecommunications deregulation bill has the approval of consumer advocates and a watchdog agency that for years resisted Qwest Communication's lobbying at the Utah Capitol for freedom from rate regulation. With their support, the measure is likely to gain full legislative approval within weeks.
It represents the biggest change in telecommunications law since 1996, when lawmakers allowed other telecom companies to enter the Utah market, even as Qwest still was subject to regulation. Now Qwest is competing against about 35 other companies, for landline and cellular service, Internet and other telecom services for small and large businesses and ordinary households.
"The bill recognizes there's robust competition in the telecommunications market and that we should no longer be treated differently than our competitors by state regulators," Qwest Utah President Gerry Fenn said Friday in an interview.
Fenn said Qwest will be able to respond aggressively by matching market offers, discounts, rebates and promotions from other telecom companies trying to win customers.
In a compromise, Qwest agreed to freeze its rate for basic residential phone service at rates that vary by region. That concession was key to winning the support of regulators and the Utah Committee of Consumer Services, a state agency that vigorously defends the interest of ordinary utility customers, including farmers, ranchers, small business and households.
"Our big concern was the grandmother who has basic local phone service without any features and just wants to call family and friends. Under this bill she has protection," Utah Public Service Commission Chairman Ric Campbell told The Associated Press.
Roger Ball, director of the Committee of Consumer Services, said his watchdog agency made certain the legislation spelled out the basic services Qwest must guarantee at low rates, including unlimited local dialing and access to long distance services.
Ball said that for 80 years telephone customers have been paying investors a return on their investment plus a profit margin, making every phone consumer an owner of sorts in the utility.
"We didn't think it would be reasonable to rip away from those who don't want elaborate services the low cost, basic services they've essentially been paying for all their lives," Ball said.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)