The Senate Commerce Committee, sharply divided over how to deal with expected surges in telephone rates after the breakup of the Bell System, tentatively voted yesterday to delay for one year the Federal Communications Commission's recent order requiring residential telephone users to pay a monthly "access charge" for long-distance service.
The panel, however, was unable to agree on more comprehensive legislation prepared by its chairman, Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), that would have barred the access charge permanently and attempted to guarantee universal low-cost service for all telephone users. The committee will reconsider the issue next week.
An angry Packwood, who found himself outmaneuvered at the last minute by his own communications subcommittee chairman, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), and abandoned by a majority of his panel, strongly opposed the one-year moratorium as inadequate, and charged that the FCC could circumvent it easily.
"This is not going to help the rural areas," added Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who also opposed the moratorium. "We've knocked out the concept of universal telephone service."
The committee's action underscored the confusion and uncertainty surrounding telecommunications issues in the face of next January's court-ordered divestiture by American Telephone & Telegraph Co. According to some estimates, telephone bills in some states could triple.
In July the FCC approved long-distance access charges of $2 a month for residential users and $6 a month for businesses. The charges are to grow steadily for residential users and are expected to reach between $10 and $12 a month by 1990.
The access charge is intended to end the longstanding pricing subsidy--currently estimated at $11 billion a year--by which long-distance rates have kept local charges artificially low.
With rising fears over the combined impact of divestiture and the access charge, both houses of Congress began considering legislation this summer that would preserve the subsidy and otherwise ensure that the poor, elderly and rural residents would not be priced out of telephone service.
Packwood's bill, for example, would create a $200 million "universal telephone service" fund, to be financed by levies on long-distance carriers and businesses that choose to bypass local telephone companies and use their own systems. The fund then would be used to subsidize local telephone companies that have especially high costs, such as those in rural or mountainous areas.
Similar legislation has been sponsored in the House by Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, which is scheduled to take it up next week.
AT&T and other telecommunications firms such as MCI Communications have lobbied against the bills. Yesterday's action showed, moreover, that there was little consensus on what should be done.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) argued that the industry is changing too rapidly for Congress to act in any comprehensive way right now. "We're moving along pell-mell into chaos here," he said in arguing against Packwood's proposal.
In addition, Goldwater, who conducted the communications subcommittee hearings on the Packwood bill, switched gears on Monday, sent out a brief letter to all committee members saying he opposed the bill, and then failed to show up at yesterday's meeting to explain why. Committee sources said that Goldwater's actions may have had more to do with personal pique at Packwood than substantive differences on the legislation itself.
Lautenberg then offered--and the committee by a 9 to 6 vote tentatively passed--the more limited amendment, which delays the access charge on residential users until Jan. 1, 1985, but leaves in place the charge on business users. Opponents such as Stevens said that the committee's "breathing time" will be little more than six months because, after that, congressional deliberations will be interrupted by two political conventions and a presidential election.