Feb. 19, 2004 After much discussion, the Public Services Commission has decided to accept the recommendation of its hearing examiner, Rosalie Ballentine, that the commission did not have jurisdiction to designate Choice Communications as an eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC).
The commission also voted Wednesday to grant Choice a letter stating its lack of jurisdiction, which the company could then take to the Federal Communications Commission to seek the ETC status.
If the FCC grants Choice the ETC status, it will be one step in the direction of allowing Choice to compete with Innovative Telephone. Choice has been seeking the ETC status for a little over a year. Choice has two other matters pending that are part of what the company needs to qualify to be a competitor in the marketplace.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the door for competition in the telephone service business across the country, thus breaking up the monopolies that once controlled all telephone service.
However, competition has repeatedly been denied access to the Virgin Islands market.
Ballentine told the commissioners Wednesday that the ETC matter has to be referred to the FCC because Choice is a federally licensed company. "You are limited in your ability to regulate Choice because Choice does not come within your jurisdiction," Ballentine said.
Commissioners questioned whether the FCC granting Choice the ETC status would make Choice eligible to obtain Universal Services Funds, as Innovative now does, and whether that would diminish Innovative's share of the funds.
The federal government provides the funding to phone companies in rural areas or other areas where the installation of telecommunication infrastructure may prove to be difficult and costly. The territory is classified as such an area. Innovative receives about $33 million a year in subsidies. (See "Phone company federal subsidies exceed $33 million")
"An ETC designation to Choice from the FCC does not mean they are automatically eligible for Universal Service Funds," Maria Hodge, local representative for Choice, said. Hodge added that if and when Choice receives the funds, that does not mean that Innovative's share of the funds would be diminished.
"We think at this point today that you ought to accept your hearing examiner's recommendation and issue a letter to us saying you lack jurisdiction," Hodge told the commissioners. "Your jurisdiction will be unimpaired by the issuance of this letter."
Innovative's legal counsel, Julio Brady, was asked whether he had any objections to Ballentine's recommendations. Brady said he had none.
Commissioner Alric Simmonds made the motion to accept Ballentine's recommendation and to grant Choice the letter stating the PSC lacked jurisdiction in this matter. The motion was passed with Commissioners Jerris Browne, Valencio Jackson, Desmond Maynard, Alecia Wells and Simmonds voting in the affirmative. Commissioner Verne David abstained.
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