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Hasty FCC vote would drive up cell phone bills

This has been a difficult year for all of us, as we have watched the stock markets sputter, housing values plummet and banks crash. Many people are wondering if regular citizens are ever going to be able to stop bailing out big companies.

Apparently, the Federal Communications Commission thinks we need a "relief package" for the nation's largest telecommunications providers. That's why the FCC is just days away from voting on a proposed order that could end up costing consumers millions of dollars on their monthly phone bills.

Right now, when AT&T and Verizon use smaller carriers' telephone networks to complete calls, they have to pay an access charge to those carriers. This is a major revenue source for the mid-sized telecommunications companies that serve mostly rural, high-cost areas. The order proposed by FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin would all but do away with that revenue, instead shifting the burden to all residential and business telephone customers by forcing carriers to raise their rates $2 to $15 per month. As an inevitable consequence of this order, monthly service rates will shoot up, forcing many low income and senior citizens to choose between basic necessities and essential telecommunications services.

The consequences for business and economic development are just as dire. Businesses with multiple phone lines will have to make the same painful choices as consumers.

If the order goes into effect, we can expect a long-term slowdown in economic development in parts of the country that are depending on new and expanding telecommunications services to support economic development. In addition, the impact on smaller carriers will likely cost jobs in rural areas and force reductions in broadband investment.

Make no mistake, the system of access charges currently used by the telephone companies to compensate each other for use of their networks is very complicated, and no one questions the need for reform. The telecommunications industry has been trying to work toward a sensible and mutually beneficial solution for years. However, Martin is pushing a radical reform, which hardly resembles anything the industry has ever envisioned. He has given his fellow commissioners only a few weeks to review a massive, 160-page long draft order -- and Congress, consumers and carriers serving rural America will never even see the order until it has been voted on.

Most astonishingly, Martin insists the FCC must vote on this comprehensive reform order on Tuesday, the same day Americans vote in the national election. Perhaps he assumes that no one will be paying attention. I hope he is wrong; I hope that business owners, residential customers and everyone who has an interest in promoting fairness will speak up and ask the FCC to stop its headlong rush toward this disastrous policy.

Claudia Maroney is general manager of Frontier Communications.

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