Putting access fees on hold

It was a modest if possibly temporary victory for the average American who makes an occasional long-distance call. This victory was the decision by the Federal Communications Commission to delay, until June 1985, AT&T's plan to charge residential customers a monthly fee to make long-distance phone calls. This sum, called an access fee, would be in addition to the cost of each long-distance call.

The FCC similarly postponed the fee for businesses that have only one phone line; the new cost, however, will still take effect this April for companies with more than one line.

But people who make numerous long-distance calls won't find the decision much help: AT&T says as a result it probably won't be able to decrease its rates as it had hoped to do.

The whole idea of access charges never did seem appropriate, because they're inherently unfair: They shift some of the cost of long-distance calls from those who make many to those who make few.

True, the access charges were to be low at first: only $2 a month. But within a few years they were expected to climb to a national average of $7, with the possibility that the charge would be twice as high in some states.

At these levels the sum, added to the rising cost of local phone service, might make it impossible for many poor people or retirees on fixed incomes to have phone service.

Some of the factors that pushed the FCC toward its decision show how the political system works. The US House of Representatives had already passed a bill to prohibit access charges. A similar measure pending in the Senate had much support from Democrats, and many Republicans were unhappy about the prospect of voting in favor of the fees in an election year. Consequently 32 senators, led by Kansas' Bob Dole, asked the FCC to postpone the access charges - which it now has done.

As things stand in the wake of last week's FCC ruling, the charge is scheduled to go into effect in June 1985 for homeowners and the businesses with only one phone line. Either the FCC or Congress ought to take up the issue again and scrap the charge permanently.

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