JEFFERSON CITY _ Imagine half a dozen Missouri business people or students communicating face to face, across an Internet conference table via fiber optic telecommunications lines, with others in cities throughout the world.
If the Missouri Commission on Information Technology (CIT) has its way, this scenario will soon become a reality.
CIT recently released a report that outlines a strategy for providing universal telecommunications access throughout Missouri.
CIT proposes making the state's utility-regulating Public Service Commission (PSC) as the telecommunications watchdog. The PSC's main function would be managing the transition from monopoly to competitive markets in the telecommunications industry. CIT argues open-market competition among telephone and cable companies will get Missouri on line quicker, stimulating technological innovation and efficiency.
But like the saying goes: you can't please all the people all the time.
In this instance, it's Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, which provides about 70 percent of Missouri's basic local telephone service.
"The CIT recommendation opens our business for competition, but it doesn't allow us to effectively compete to retain our own business and it squarely does not allow us to enter into the cable TV or long distance business in any fashion while allowing long distance and cable TV companies come into our business. We think that's unfair," said Richard Taylor, a Southwestern Telephone Company representative and CIT member.
Of the 14 members on the CIT commission, Taylor is the only representative who does not endorse the deregulation restrictions outlined in the CIT report.
"If the saw is going to cut, it can only cut true if it cuts both ways," Taylor said.
Southwestern Bell has been lobbying legislators since the inception of Missouri's quest for online access. Last May, the company bussed several thousand employees to the Capitol in Jefferson City to rally in support of Southwestern Bell's legislative plan.
Meanwhile, Southwestern Bell ran television ads depicting Missouri as a conservative state that is lagging behind other states who have passed telecommunications-related legislation.
Because Southwestern Bell dominates Missouri's basic local telephone services, it's a top competitor for future telecommunications services.
CIT proposes opening up the competition by keeping rein on Southwestern Bell and only gradually easing the regulatory constraints.
"The restrictions are on them (Southwestern Bell) for a very important reason. They have the monopoly bottleneck." said Leann Chilton, MCI governmental affairs manager and CIT commissioner.
Chilton also supports a CIT recommendation that the Public Service Commission, not legislators, oversee the issues that may delay Missouri's progress.
"We decided as a group that the government's most appropriate role is to provide incentive for the private sector of the telecommunications providers to bring the network out to parts of the states where it doesn't already exist." said Jill Friedman, Director of Policy Development.
"We want to make sure everyone has access to the service." she said.
Meanwhile Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County, is sponsoring a bill designed to implement CIT's deregulation plans.
"The purpose of the bill is to implement that report. Deregulate local telephone service and open it up to competition, making access to the wire open to competition." Goode said.
Goode's bill supports the CIT's plan that would require existing local telephone companies and potential competitors to follow certain rules and a timetable for a smooth transition from monopoly to competition _ a plan Southwestern Bell opposes.
"The real issue is whether or not you have real competition in the local community...the ability for you as a homeowner or apartment dweller to select from any one of a number of carriers." Goode said.
But Southwestern Bell could loose customers in an open, competitive market.
As an alternative plan, the company is waiting for Congress to pass a Republican-sponsored bill that calls for eliminating all state regulation while permitting local service providers such as the "baby Bell" companies to enter the long-distance business in return for accepting competition in local service.