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PSC Votes Against Phone Competition

Dec. 6, 2006 — It took five minutes Wednesday for Public Services Commission members to decide against allowing Choice Communications to offer competitive telephone service in the territory.
The decision came at the end of a 30-minute board meeting. The PSC ultimately decided to uphold its decision to disallow telephone competition, based on the assumption that it would increase telephone rates.
In April, the commission was given 60 days to further redefine its determination on the matter, after being ordered to do so by federal District Court Judge Stanley Brotman. According to PSC Chairwoman Alecia Wells, the meeting was called "as a courtesy" to representatives from both Choice (formerly Wireless World LLC) and Innovative Communication Corp., who were allowed to give 10-minute arguments for and against the decision.
"The actions taken this evening simply reflect the need for this commission to respond to questions raised by the court," Wells said. "It does not change the conclusion reached by the commission five years ago."
PSC members had no questions for either party after the arguments were presented and moved immediately to approve a five-page order explaining their decision. The motion to approve the order was made by St. Croix board member M. Thomas Jackson, who read the motion from a prepared statement.
Voting in favor of the motion were Wells and Jackson, along with PSC board members Donald "Ducks" Cole and Verne C. David.
Soon after the meeting adjourned, the PSC circulated a short news release explaining the actions of the commission. "By its actions this evening, the commission reaffirmed its earlier decision to reject the application of Wireless World LLC to have the commission remove the rural exemption right that exists in the U.S. Virgin Islands," the release stated.
Attorney J. Daryl Dodson, representing Choice, explained during the meeting that the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 — designed to promote competition and eliminate monopolies — offers some protection to small, rural telephone companies. Dodson asked commissioners to remove the exemption, saying that the company posed no "unique threat" to Innovative.
However, Innovative attorney Gregory Vogt urged commissions not to remove the exemption, saying that there is a "substantial" risk that Choice would initially go after Innovative's business customers.
"The issue is whether there will be equal residential and business rates," he explained after the meeting. "By taking away the subsidies the businesses are providing to the company, residential rates could go up between 42 and 113 percent."
Joe Sharp, Choice's chief executive officer, disagreed.
"Choice doesn't have a single product that's business oriented," he said after the meeting. "Our target, with this proposal, was the entire consumer market."
Sharp said he would have urged PSC officials to go back and look at original court documents filed on the matter. "They'll see that the documents are drastically different from what the [Innovative] attorney presented," he said.
For example, Sharp cited Vogt's claim that Choice had "refused" to put its business plan on record. "Our business plan was part of the early court documents submitted years and years ago," he said.
Sharp also refuted the idea that Choice had disrespected the "jurisdiction of the PSC," by refusing to pay various fees charged by the commission.
"The law stipulates what type of carrier comes under the jurisdiction of the PSC," he said. "Right now, we do not."
While Vogt said Innovative "is happy" about the PSC's decision, Sharp said that Choice will now have to "monitor what the courts do."
If the court rules against Choice, he said, the company will "most likely" appeal the decision.
The order would be filed in District Court no later than Dec. 8, according to PSC officials. Arguments presented by both Choice and Innovative will be filed no later than Dec. 15.
Present during Wednesday's meeting were Cole, David, Jackson and Wells.
Absent were PSC board members Joseph Boschulte, Sirri Hamad and Raymond L. Williams.
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