COLUMBUS - What if you opened a market and nobody came?
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio is wrestling with that one, trying to figure out why there hasn't been a deluge of electricity providers and local phone service carriers banging on the doors of Ohioans to sell their goods.
“When people yell and scream about the lack of competition, it's not because there are barriers to entry,” said Chairman Alan Schriber, meeting with reporters yesterday. “Any company that wants to enter this [telecommunications] market certainly can.”
The question of how the commission will judge competition comes as Ameritech tries to convince the agency that it has opened its local calling market enough to warrant being allowed to venture into Ohio's long-distance market.
Electric utilities also face a legislated goal of having 20 percent of their customers shopping for the best power deals. So far, that hasn't happened, prompting Mr. Schriber to suggest that aggregation, the process used by local governments like Toledo or large groups of customers to negotiate bulk deals, may be the best bet for reaching those goals.
“For residential [customers], I think aggregation has got to be the way to go,” he said. “We don't see a lot of marketers out there marketing. They're not beating down your door, providing you with all kinds of information, calling you.”
It may become a question of judging whether a telephone company or electric utility has done all it can do to foster competition.
“I suppose [Ameritech] could make the argument that the potential for competition is there and, if it isn't there, what can we do?” he said. “If you've enabled it and nobody walks in the door, are they supposed to be precluded from forever getting this [long-distance] privilege?”
Ohio Consumer Counsel Rob Tongren disagreed with Mr. Schriber's contention that there are no barriers to telephone competition, pointing to fees and other obstacles phone companies may throw in the path of customers wishing to switch providers.
“There are a lot more things that the PUCO can do and will do to make Ohio more attractive for companies,” he said.
In 1999, the General Assembly deregulated the generation of electricity, requiring utilities to make their power grids available to competing companies.
Last week, the PUCO loosened pricing restrictions on phone companies in exchange for their agreement to invest in a high-speed Internet network across the state.
The rules would indefinitely freeze rates for a basic phone line and caller ID, but eventually would allow prices for other services like call-waiting to as much as double. The lid eventually would be off entirely for more advanced services, including high-speed data service.