PA PUC: do not pass go

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Getting my kids to play Monopoly is impossible.  Rich Uncle Penny Bags’ classic board game that moves little pewter top hats around Boardwalk and Park Place trying to pass go to get $200 just doesn’t cut it.  They’d much rather use cable wires to beat cross-town buddies in zapping the evil death star.  The death star comes with 64 dimensions and digital sound so owning Marvin Gardens with a house is as exciting as cutting the grass.  They know that two hundred bucks just about covers a couple of months of cable time.  And the only hope for fun when the old Monopoly board gets dusted off is the promise that early on a fight over the rules will break out scattering the players back to video game controllers that seem to be welded to their hands.

      Who can blame them?  People under 30 expect to be able to instantaneously transmit their moves around the globe while those born just a decade earlier find this ability to be either myth, magic or marvelous.  Anybody born after 1970 figures that Monopoly is a game sold by college alumni associations to make a few bucks on nostalgia.  Nobody really plays it on cardboard anymore do they?  Load it on the hard drive and gear up the modem and on a slow day at work you can beat the guy down the hall to owning every hotel on every hot property.  It’s all done before that little pewter shoe could move one block.

      Unfortunately the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission doesn’t know this, based on their recent decision to send local phone competition straight into lock up.  The Commissioners wearing their high button shoes, spats and shiny derbies, deliberating with Benny Goodman blaring from the phonograph slowly cast the dice claiming to end a monopoly.  Unfortunately they made their move and then decided to change the rules sending the whole game board crashing to the floor and scattering the players and it may take years, or a judge, to get them all back to the table.

      The problem with the telecommunications monopoly game in Pennsylvania is that the banker – the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission – doesn’t exactly cheat, it just keeps changing the rules every time a player makes a move.  The written rule from the big game maker, the Federal Government, is that all consumers, personal and business, can choose their local and long-distance phone companies.  While some say the Fed’s simplistic approach to a highly technical matter gives new meaning to the term lip service it is a simple enough concept to grasp.

      Not in Pennsylvania even though on the national level it’s worked for nearly 20 years.  You can hear a pin drop across the country but the same companies, AT&T, Sprint and MCI-Worldcom have never offered to carry your call across the street.  If your computer demands the hyperaction of coaxial instant data transmission your local unregulated cable TV company will sell it to you.  However with cable’s municipal monopoly you won’t have a choice of service and you’ll pay what they demand, when they demand it.

      The PUC thinks that’s fine.  The commission’s telecommunications de-regulation finding that was wildly applauded by AT&T, Sprint and MCI essentially says that the only open competitor to these international giants, Bell Atlantic, could not go into the long distance business.  Yet it permits the big three to run all over the board grabbing up all the big customers.  The PUC made some vague promise to eventually let Bell play the game but with this confounding decision it seems Bell’s shareholders would have to pay themselves for business they’ve already earned.

      The Commissioners wondered why Bell didn’t like the decision.  No local competition and no additional long distance competition tells Bell shareholders and consumers in the state that they can’t pass go when it comes to modern phone technology and real choice. Its too bad that Morse code was discontinued last month maybe the message could have been telegraphed to the Commissioners that it is 1999.  For a whole generation we’ve owned our own phones, chosen our long distance service, even watched paid movies on our TV and this marvelous new invention, the Internet, lets us play games with people all over the world.  Competitive markets have worked.  We make our own choices and if we don’t like it we can go somewhere else or not subscribe at all.  Of whatever biological age we are the electronic children and no government can tell us how we like to play the game.  Some day soon in the interest of advancing our technological infrastructure the PUC will make and stick with one set of rules to end the phone monopoly and have real competition in Pennsylvania, in the meantime pass the dice.