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Baltimore's City Paper article on ISDN

  This is disseminated with permission.  jamie
  ---------- Forwarded message ----------
  Date: Tue, 25 Jun 1996 22:20:53 -0400 (EDT)
  From: Joab Jackson <joabj@charm.net>
                                [INLINE] CYBERPUNK
  The Heart of Communication
     WeÂ’ve all pretty much gotten used to the shell games long-distance
     phone companies play with their rates—a dime now but a quarter
     tomorrow and all that. But soon Internet users might have to start
     poring over Bell AtlanticÂ’s (http://www.bell-atl.com) local rates as
     well, if they want to find the best prices for high-speed Net surfing.
     And this fact has a Ralph Nader–affiliated activist group, the
     Consumer Project on Technology (http://www.essential.org/cpt) up in
     arms. It believes the prices that Bell Atlantic offers now and wants
     to offer in the future are unnecessarily high.
     The Consumer Project ‘s discontent is about Bell Atlantic’s Integrated
     Services Digital Network (ISDN) service. Not many people have heard of
     ISDN yet, but anyone who frequently uses the Internet will, in all
     likelihood, come to use it in the next few years. An ISDN can transmit
     digital data several times as quickly as todayÂ’s fastest modems can.
     With extensive graphics, downloadable film clips, Real Audio services,
     and other bandwidth-heavy applications becoming the norm on the
     Net—and with video conferencing and telecommuting becoming fixtures in
     the workplace—ISDN might very well be more a necessity than a luxury
     in the near future.
     Our local telephone company, Bell Atlantic, offers residential ISDN
     now, but the price is steep—$249 a month for unlimited usage, with
     various lower metered rates based on how much time the user spends
     on-line (one monthly fee for 20 hours, another for 60, etc.). On July
     3, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) will begin considering
     the phone company’s proposed new “tariffs,” which cut rates for
     metered usage but leave unlimited service at the same $249 a month.
     CPT is fighting the Bell Atlantic request, which the consumer
     organization considers excessive. For one thing, CPT executive
     director James Love says, it doesnÂ’t cost Bell Atlantic much more to
     offer ISDN than to offer normal phone service. The CPT Web page points
     to an analysis by the Tennessee public-service commission that found
     that residential ISDN only costs that stateÂ’s telephone company $9.77
     per month more than the regular service. Since customersÂ’ on-line time
     has so little bearing on the ISDN providerÂ’s cost, CPT argues, the
     focus should be on unlimited-service packages, and Bell AtlanticÂ’s is
     far from competitive. On a “Talking Points” paper on its Web page, CPT
     lists several companies that offer unlimited ISDN usage at a fraction
     of Bell AtlanticÂ’s charge: $17.90 a month for Arkansas-based NATCO,
     for example, and fees ranging from $28.05 to $34.50 in four Midwestern
     states served by Ameritech.
     Unfortunately, Love told to me by phone, few consumers will know about
     this disparity until it is too late; by the time they reach into their
     pockets for this fine new service, theyÂ’ll find they have to reach
     pretty deep to afford it. “If no consumer objections are raised at the
     hearing, it is likely that the ISDN tariffs will be approved without
     any further hearings,” CPT asserts in a press release.
     I brought these concerns to the attention of Bell Atlantic
     spokesperson Joan Rasmussen. On the issue of flat rate vs. metered
     service, she explains that Bell Atlantic found, through extensive
     customer surveys, that the best way to serve the needs of a diverse
     customer base is through metered plans. Few people will actually use
     ISDN service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she says; in fact,
     most people wonÂ’t use it much at all. So, she argues, if Bell Atlantic
     offers one rate, those who rarely use the service will be subsidizing
     those who use it more often (say, those obsessive geeks who stay on
     the Net all day, such as, er, myself, I suppose). “It wouldn’t be fair
     to adjust the rates to [serve] just a minority of users,” she says.
     Fair enough. But it still seems as if Bell Atlantic’s rates—even its
     metered rates—are higher than those elsewhere in the country,
     according to phone-company figures and a CPT survey. What gives?
     Apples and oranges, Rasmussen counters—one company might cover a much
     smaller area, or it might have many unannounced add-ons that boost the
     bottom line.
     ItÂ’s worth noting, however, that at least one state public-service
     commission in Bell AtlanticÂ’s territory, DelawareÂ’s, didnÂ’t buy that
     argument. It rejected Bell AtlanticÂ’s tariff proposal and approved a
     sweet flat rate of $28.02 a month. (Wish I lived in Delaware.) And
     perhaps the real crux of the matter is that Bell Atlantic is basing
     its rates on customer surveys and current usage, at a time when ISDN
     remains a novelty to all but a few. But CPT is thinking of the
     future—to a time when the general public might use the Net more
     frequently and for longer periods of time. So, unless enough people
     squawk now, Maryland might be stuck with high ISDN rates. (Come to
     think of it, maybe Bell Atlantic was thinking of the future as well.)
     In any case, thereÂ’s much more to this matter than what IÂ’ve covered..
     If youÂ’re a heavy Internet user, it may pay later to play concerned
     citizen now. Study the proposed rates at the Bell Atlantic ISDN page
     (look for the June 3 news release), study the CPT home page, and toss
     in your two cents by contacting the PSC (phone: 767-8000; mail: 6 St.
     Paul St., Baltimore, MD, 21202; E-mail: isdn@psc.state.md.us). You
     might even consider showing up at the July 3 hearing (9:30 a.m. on the
     16th floor of the St. Paul Street building) and making the presence of
     the Internet community felt. It just may pay off a few years down the