A month without Ma Bell breakup is inconvenient for customers, opportune for New England entrepreneurs
It is appropriate that the Bell System broke up in January - the month named for Janus, two-faced Roman god of doors and of beginnings. The divestiture - the spinoff of local phone companies from AT&T - has shown two faces in New England during the past month. The breakup has meant confusion and additional expense for telephone users. But its smiling face, so to speak, has been new opportunities for the region's high-tech entrepreneurs and consultants.Skip to next paragraph
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On one hand:
* Some residential customers worry they will not be able to afford the anticipated rate increases for local phone service.
* Businesses are having to shop around to find the best telephone services to meet their needs.
* And the independent phone companies, which serve parts of all six New England states, are under ''a real strain'' to deal with the Bell divestiture, says William Stafford, president of the New Hampshire Telephone Association.
On the other hand, much of high-tech New England is bullish on the breakup. Telecommunications manufacturers are looking forward to selling to the seven newly divested regional holding companies, which will be free to go into the equipment business.
But some people are afraid they might have to give up their phones, particularly if the controversial long-distance access charge is imposed. These concerns surfaced during last week's press conference of the Massachusetts Coalition for Affordable Phones.
In a high-ceilinged hearing room under the gold State House dome on Beacon Hill, a young woman, obviously unaccustomed to public speaking and nervous under the intense TV lights, was one of several consumer representatives who expressed concern about the costs of divestiture, particularly for the poor.
''We're already hurting,'' she said. ''The telephone has become a necessity - a contact with the outside world.'' She took nervous gulps of air between sentences as she pushed on through her prepared statement. She spoke of being alone with four small children and needing the telephone as a lifeline to schools, to doctors, and other services.
But down in Newington, Conn., at TeleConcepts Inc., where this reporter visited a few days later, things look brighter. TeleConcepts makes ''decorator'' phones for the residential market, and claims the largest range of styles of any phonemaker in the United States. Many of their phones have sophisticated extra features such as automatic callback of busy numbers.
Myra Winkler, vice-president for design, showed off some of the firm's creations, including a phone that comes in a special acrylic case adorned with a museum-quality Oriental print and real gold leaf. This sort of thing retails at stores like Bloomingdale's and Saks for several hundred dollars.
Frank Manning of Zoom Telephonics in Boston, which makes automatic dialers, is another telecommunications entrepreneur bullish on divestiture. ''The local phone companies are a $5 billion-a-year market, and a lot of that is going to be our stuff.''
William M. Brown of Acton, Mass., president of a new firm called Teltec, predicts New England will change its long-term technology orientation from defense to communications, and sees particular opportunities in the small-business market.
Optimists predict tumbling long-distance rates and equipment prices, as well as sophisticated services, such as electronic grocery shopping, available in even the humblest of homes.
''But only 12 to 20 percent of all consumers have communications needs sophisticated enough for them to benefit from the divestiture,'' argues Robert Rebitzer, a utility researcher with Massachusetts Fair Share Inc., a consumer advocacy group in Boston.