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PHONE RULES [Albuquerque Journal, N.M. :: ]
[February 07, 2014]

PHONE RULES [Albuquerque Journal, N.M. :: ]

(Albuquerque Journal (NM) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 07--CenturyLink Inc. is seeking to overhaul the way New Mexico has regulated the local telecommunications industry for nearly three decades.

The company is aggressively lobbying for legislative approval of two identical bills in the House and Senate (HB 242 and SB 152 ), which basically would eliminate current regulation of CenturyLink operations and instead subject it to the kind of reduced oversight that now applies to small, rural phone companies.

CenturyLink executives say such reform is critical for it to effectively compete in today's marketplace, where it faces intense competition from wireless, cable and Internet-based phone companies.

Valerie Dodd, the company's vice president and general manager for New Mexico, said the current law, which dates back to 1985, severely restricts her company's ability to set competitive rates and invest in new technologies and services.

That's created unfair advantages for competitors, she said, substantially reducing CenturyLink's market share in the last 10 to 15 years.

"New Mexico has very outdated regulation that was created when most people had home phones and only senior executives had cellphones," Dodd told the Journal's editorial board Wednesday. "We've lost a lot of ground because the wireless and cable companies are not regulated at all. We have one hand tied behind our back while we're trying to play ball." But critics say the legislative bills go too far, essentially eliminating the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission's ability to regulate the telecom giant.

"They're calling this 'modernization' and 'relaxed regulation,' but it's basically deregulation," said PRC member Valerie Espinoza. "It would block our ability to enforce quality of service and protect consumers' pocketbooks." In a 3-1 vote Wednesday, the commission rejected a CenturyLink request to endorse the bill. Commissioner Pat Lyons voted to support the legislation, and Commissioner Ben Hall was absent.

CenturyLink says the bill would not deregulate the company, but rather set it on an even regulatory playing field with small, rural phone companies. In essence, it would eliminate all special oversight of medium- and large-sized telecoms, which include CenturyLink and Windstream Communications, and instead place them under the 1999 Rural Telecommunications law that applies to companies that manage fewer than 50,000 land lines.

If approved, CenturyLink would no longer be subject to first having the PRC determine if effective competition exists in the state before granting approval to reduce or eliminate regulation of company services.

The company would be free to set its own prices without hearings, invest in the technology and services it sees fit rather than what the PRC wants, and manage its own standards of quality of service.

The company says those things would benefit consumers by allowing it to offer discounts and promotions to retain current customers while attracting new ones. And it would free up more CenturyLink investment in needed broadband technology in New Mexico, rather than spending so much on aging land line infrastructure simply to meet PRC regulatory demands.

Competitors, however, say the changes would create unfair advantages for CenturyLink, which is by far the state's largest telecom provider with more than 900,000 "living units," or residential and business customers, in New Mexico.

"It will give CenturyLink the ability to lower rates in places where they face competition to drive out competitors, while raising them in places where they have no competition," Carol Clifford, an attorney representing TW Telecom, told the PRC on Wednesday. "The bill eliminates the commission's ability to regulate business rates, but CenturyLink still controls more than 70 percent of the business market in New Mexico." In fact, the PRC declined last year to loosen price regulation for CenturyLink's business services, nor for its basic land line service, because the commission found that not enough competition exists in those areas in New Mexico.

Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, and Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, are sponsoring the bills in the Senate and House.

___ (c)2014 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) Visit the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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