April 24, 2006 – "The decision as to whether the Virgin Islands will get competition in telephone service is now squarely before the Public Service Commission," said Cornelius B. Prior Jr., chairman of Choice Communications, a company that has been seeking such competition for the last six years.
Prior‛s statement came following the latest development in the legal battle, Innovative Communications Corp.‛s withdrawal of its request for an appeal. The matter now reverts to the PSC.
The commission had previously ruled that telephone competition would increase telephone rates and should not be allowed; an appeal was made, and federal District Court Judge Philip Brotman ruled that the PSC had not adequately supported its ruling and ordered PSC to revisit the situation. Innovative Telephone (formerly Vitelco) then appealed the judge's ruling; and the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, according to a Choice Communications press release, wrote a letter to Innovative saying that the Brotman decision could not be appealed, as it was not a final decision because the matter was still before the PSC.
What happens next?
The court order gave the PSC 60 days to complete its work on whether or not telephone competition would or would not better serve V.I. telephone users, but PSC attorney Michael Dunston said there is a problem.
He explained in correspondence to both the Third Circuit and Choice Communications that the PSC is unable to convene a quorum of four members.
The PSC, on which there are seven seats, currently has only four commissioners. It has been unable to pull all four together at the same time for its last two monthly meetings.
Prior said, "We do need more commissioners, and it would be good to have six or seven of them."
Telephone competition is the rule, not the exception in the United States, Prior pointed out. Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, there can only be a legally sanctioned monopoly in systems with fewer than 100,000 lines, and then only if the state or territorial regulatory body has ruled that a monopoly arrangement is in the public interest.
To come to the conclusion that a lack of competition is in the public interest, according to the Choice Communications press release, the regulatory body has to rule that one of three conditions prevails: that competition is not feasible for technical reasons; that competition would be "unduly economically burdensome"; or that competition would be inconsistent with the principles of Universal Service, "which generally require that quality service be available at affordable rates."
It was on the third factor that the PSC had determined that competition in the Virgin Islands would increase rates, and thus should not be allowed.
It is this determination that Judge Brotman said the PSC had not adequately supported in its earlier decision, and that the commission must now revisit. It can either seek to support its earlier argument, that competition will bring higher prices for telephone services, or it can change its position and agree to permit competition in the local telephone market.
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