Federal Communications Commission Chairman Mark S. Fowler yesterday said progress is being made on a political compromise that would allow the FCC to assess a monthly access charge on residential telephone users to aid local telephone companies.
"The range of the dispute has been narrowed," Fowler said at a conference sponsored by Phillips Publishing Inc. and by Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, a Washington law firm. "The possibility of developing a consensus solution -- and one that is consistent with the public interest -- has become far more likely."
Last year, the FCC proposed to charge residential customers and single-line businesses an access charge of $2 a month, rising to $4 monthly by 1987. But under heavy congressional pressure, the FCC put off the implementation of the plan until next June.
Sources said the FCC is moving toward reducing the size of the residential access charge, extending the time frame for its implementation and giving state regulators more responsibility for recovering access charges on a state-by-state basis.
The FCC met last week with the Joint Board of State and Federal Commissioners, a panel of four state public service commissioners and three FCC members, including Fowler, to negotiate a compromise between the FCC and state regulators, who have felt left out of the debate over access charges.
The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners had protested that the FCC plan for a residential-access charge as essentially a local charge over which the FCC has no authority. The joint board is expected to meet in mid-November to consider a compromise, if one has been reached.
The FCC also has begun informal talks with Capitol Hill, sources said.
Fowler is arguing that the health of local telephone companies and chances of moderate residential phone rates, depend on keeping large business customers on the local phone network. And this, in turn, requires the imposition of access charges directly on residential and business customers, Fowler says.
Without such charges, long-distance companies such as American Telephone & Telegraph Co., MCI Communications Corp. and GTE/Sprint pay a disproportionately large share of overall costs of operating the phone network, according to Fowler. This leads to higher long-distance charges, creating an incentive for large companies to bypass the phone system and set up their own communications networks, Fowler notes.
Such a potential loss of revenue "threatens the continued viability of the local telephone companies," Fowler said yesterday.
Sources said the FCC is making progress toward a compromise with Congress, state regulators and local telephone companies for a residential-access-charge plan.
One key Capitol Hill source said many members of Congress still feel that access charges should be imposed by states, not by the FCC. "Bypass is fundamentally a local, not a national, problem," the source said. "That judgment still stands."
The FCC, however, is now willing to give state regulators more jurisdiction over how the access revenue is recovered and might permit states to recover fees in ways other than through a flat residential access charge, sources said.