bills going up
The 38-cent monthly feeBy Rob Perez
is for a service that most
customers can't use yet
GTE Hawaiian Tel's Oahu customers will be charged a monthly fee of 38 cents per telephone line to pay for the ability to keep their phone numbers when switching to another carrier.
But there's one hitch.
Most residential custo-mers who will be assessed the new charge starting this month generally don't have the option -- at least not yet -- of changing carriers.
That's because the other phone companies in Hawaii initially have targeted more lucrative business markets -- not residential dial-tone service.
The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 required local phone carriers to begin offering what is called number portability to customers as a way to encourage competition.
The law allows the carriers to recoup the costs of upgrading their systems to develop portability capability. GTE spokesman Keith Kamisugi said the Federal Communications Commission approved GTE's request to recover its costs -- an estimated $500 million nationwide between 1997 and 2002 -- over the next five years.
The 38-cent charge will be assessed each month to GTE's residential and business customers on Oahu, Kamisugi said. Portability is not yet available to the company's neighbor island customers.
Even though most Oahu residents will have to wait until at least next year to get a choice of carriers, a small number can benefit from portability now.
A few high-rise buildings on Oahu get their dial-tone service from competing carriers, and residents in those complexes actually have a choice.
But widespread competition in the residential sector is not expected any time soon.
The first to offer such competition likely will be AT&T Corp., thanks to a joint venture it has with Time Warner Inc.
AT&T, using the fiber-optic cable of Time Warner's Oceanic Communications on Oahu, expects to offer local residential service next year, including the ability to provide multiple phone numbers and high-speed Internet access to a household over one line, said AT&T spokesman George Irion.
"We're already in the planning stages for a year 2000 roll-out," he said.
One reason Hawaii hasn't gotten competition sooner in the residential sector has to do with local phone rates, some say.
GTE has said its current phone rates, in which residential service is being subsidized by artificially high business rates, create financial incentives for competitors to focus only on serving business customers.
GTE has sought permission from the Public Utilities Commission to rebalance its rates to better reflect the cost of providing service. That will encourage more competition in the residential market, the company says.