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Bill to promote competition, attract jobs

Not so long ago, if you wanted to talk to a friend or relative, you had to walk over to your rotary telephone, spin the number dial and wait for an answer.

If you were out of the house and needed to make a call, you had to find a quarter and locate the closest pay phone.

In 2010, thanks to incredible advances in technology over the past decade, the pay phone, and for a growing number of Ohioans, the traditional home phone have been replaced by cable phone service, internet communications and mobile phones that can do everything from search the internet to take pictures to play videos.

From 2001 to 2009, local telephone companies lost 3 million lines, while the number of wireless phone customers in Ohio grew by nearly 4.5 million, according to a recent report from the Ohio Telecom Association.

These innovations have brought Ohioans more services than they could ever imagine and, in many ways, transformed how coworkers, friends and family interact.

But, as the telecommunications marketplace has evolved, state laws governing the industry have not kept up. The Ohio Revised Code, for instance, still includes references to the “telegraph.”

More importantly, current regulations are discouraging competition by creating an unfair advantage for some telephone providers in the state.

Last month, the Senate approved legislation that is designed to put traditional telephone service providers on an equal plane when competing with wireless, cable and other telecommunications companies.

Senate Bill 162, which received strong bipartisan support, would reform much of Ohio’s traditional telecom regulatory framework, eliminating many rules at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio that are no longer appropriate in a competitive environment, in favor of a more market-oriented, yet consumer-friendly approach.

However, under the bill, the PUCO would maintain regulatory authority over basic dial tone telephone service, including access to 9-1-1, operator services and caller ID blocking, as well as certification of new telephone companies, telephone number administration, local number portability and emergency outage reporting.

Furthermore, to help ease concerns from some legislators and consumer groups, SB 162 seeks to preserve several important protections for Ohio consumers.

For instance, the legislation ensures that if a telephone company fails to respond to a customer’s report of an outage within 72 hours, the customer’s account would automatically be credited for one month of service.

In addition, the bill also would expand the enhanced Lifeline program to include all basic telephone service providers in Ohio. Lifeline helps reduce the cost of basic telephone rates for people at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

The legislation also creates a Lifeline advisory board responsible for promotion, marketing and outreach of Lifeline services.

Also, SB 162 was amended in committee to create a commission to monitor the telecommunications industry’s progress in deploying broadband service to rural areas, as well as the legislation’s impact on telephone rates and how Ohioans are getting Lifeline services.

The commission, which would have to report its findings to the General Assembly, would be comprised of four legislators, a representative from the Strickland Administration, a representative from the PUCO, a person from the telecommunications industry and a member from the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel.

The goal of SB 162 is to foster an environment that is fair, competitive and encourages telecommunications companies to invest and create jobs in Ohio.

As we look ahead to 2010, the bill should be discussed as part of the General Assembly’s larger goal to grow business, put Ohioans back to work and get our state’s economy and budget situation back on track.

SB 162 is currently pending in the Ohio House. For more information about the bill, please visit www.legislature.state.oh.us.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.