Four years after a landmark law to deregulate the telecommunications industry, the telephone business in Savannah, for many consumers, looks much the same.
That could all change this year, when a new set of market dynamics already on the horizon lands in Savannah.
Experts say the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 has brought lower long-distance rates and more telecommunications competition, although larger markets have fared far better than smaller markets such as Savannah.
Among other things, the 1996 act allowed the regional Bell operating companies such as BellSouth to compete in the markets of other Bell companies if they opened their own networks to competitors. It required Bell companies to make local lines available for qualified companies to resell at wholesale rates below the price Bell charges its own customers.
Deregulation will blur distinctions between long-distance companies, local phone companies, and even cable TV companies.
One effect of deregulation has been the emergence of competitive local exchange carriers — telephone companies that compete against the local phone company by leasing lines or by building their own network.
At the end of 1999, 162 companies have been certified by the Georgia Public Service Commission to operate in Georgia and 85 were in operation.
Twenty-five competitive local exchange carriers are registered as local service providers in the BellSouth Yellow Pages.
Competition has been a dubious gift to ordinary consumers of telecommunications services, according to Susan Speros, president of Speros Inc. in Savannah, a company that installs on-premises telecommunications equipment for businesses.
“It’s very confusing,” Speros said. “It takes one a lot of time to sort through all of the alternatives.”
Speros said the long distance market is fraught with “smoke and mirrors” — deals that look good on the surface but contain limitations, fees or restrictions that can limit the actual savings. She often advises her business customers against choosing the cheapest service. Rather, she advises them to deal with companies with good rates that have shown themselves easy to deal with when service or billing problems arise.
One of the interesting effects of deregulation, Speros said, has been new market entrants targeting low-income households that cannot afford or have been cut off by their local Bell companies. Such companies use pre-payment plans to provide dial tone to customers who may be unable to obtain phone service from their regular phone company due to past payment problems.
“If it’s not already happening somewhere in this city, pawn shops will be selling dial tone,” Speros said.