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Bell, FCC actions jolt phone industry

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New government and corporate decisions are making the telephone industry shake like an overhead wire in the wind. The latest tremors surrounding the scheduled Jan. 1 breakup of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company promise to affect consumers nationwide.

The first jolt to the phone industry came Tuesday when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) postponed until April 3 its plan to impose fixed charges for access to long distance phone service. The provision was a key element in the financial arrangements for splitting AT&T into seven regional phone companies.

AT&T reached out and touched its 3 million shareholders Wednesday by announcing it would make a $5.2 billion after-tax reduction in earnings, the largest write-off in history, to get ready for the breakup. The FCC gave word the same day that it would reduce its regulation of AT&T's competitors in the long distance business, and would study the possibility of reducing its oversight of Ma Bell.

Analysts are still studying the potential effects of these decisions. But the likely consequences for consumers include:

* A temporary reprieve from access charges for long distance calls and from a 75-cent charge for long distance directory assistance.

* An increased possibility that Congress will permanently block access charges.

* Pressure from the FCC on AT&T for deeper cuts in long distance fees than originally proposed.

* A chance that local phone companies will ask for new rate increases to make up for the loss of access charges.

* Potential delays in AT&T shareholders' ability to trade stock in the newly independent regional phone companies.

The turmoil in the phone industry ''will only get worse,'' says Donald Gooding, an analyst at the Yankee Group, a technology consulting firm. ''We are not expecting relative calm until sometime in late 1984.''

AT&T executives are not happy about the FCC's short-circuiting the access charge. The delay ''throws existing plans awry, and we have not yet come up with answers'' to all the problems involved, AT&T chairman Charles Brown told a New York press conference. Nevertheless, the company expects the breakup to take place on schedule.

A major problem is how to compensate local phone companies for maintaining the lines and equipment used in making long distance calls once they are no longer part of AT&T. AT&T may need to seek a waiver from the judge overseeing the divestiture in order to keep using the current system.


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