The chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee today accused American Telephone & Telegraph Co. of "gouging" the public in applying for massive state rate increases and pledged to renew a legislative battle to block the local rate hikes.
Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) told the National Cable Television Association's annual convention here that AT&T's opposition to a Senate cable deregulation bill now under consideration is designed to "deflect criticism of its own campaign of sharply raising rates by blaming someone else--in this case cable."
AT&T is opposing the Senate cable bill because it claims that the deregulation of data services offered by cable systems in competition with AT&T will deprive local phone companies of revenues they need to maintain low local rates.
Wirth argued here that cable does not have that kind of market power, and in fact that its services are competitive with AT&T services that represent only 2 percent of phone company revenues.
Wirth's strident comments about the massive AT&T local rate campaign and the company's current efforts to beat back the Senate cable bill follow a recent announcement by Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, that his panel would try to find a way to address the phone rate issue.
Wirth failed last year to pass major telephone legislation in the face of bitter and intense AT&T opposition. The Bell System has argued that no telephone legislation is appropriate until after it is broken apart next Jan. 1.
But Wirth said a new bill he and other subcommittee leaders are preparing is likely to be modeled after the earlier legislation and will be designed to ensure "universal" telephone service. And he said that rising concern among state regulators, consumer activists and many politicians about looming local rate increases make passage of telephone legislation more likely than last year.
Wirth charged that the local Bell System rate increase proposals, which total well over $1 billion, may result in the "denial of basic telephone service to millions of low- or fixed-income" AT&T customers. It is "time for this rate increase nonsense to stop," he said, calling the recent rash of state rate applications "extraordinary, unprecedented and unnecessary."
Wirth said that few details of the new legislative proposal were firm, but added that its principal purpose would be to ensure "universal access" to the national telephone system.