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                    On the Oregon BBS Rates Case

On 2-5-92, reporter Dana Blankenhorn released a copyrighted exclusive story for Wendy Wood's Newsbytes covering the Oregon BBS rates case. What follows is an abstract of that story.

Blankenhorn writes: "US West has launched a campaign before the Oregon Public Utility Commission which would force all bulletin board systems (BBSs) in that state to pay business rates on their phone lines." The Newsbytes exclusive also asserts that US West "wants the Oregon PUC to reinterpret its tariff so as to define any phone not answered by a human voice as a business line."

Blankenhorn quotes extensively from an apparent interview with SysOp Stewart Anthony Wagner while summarizing the chronology of events in the case. Some folks here might find the chronology and alleged facts be a bit different from what has been reported in the past.

According to Blankenhorn, Portland, Oregon SysOp Tony Wagner attempted to subscribe to extra phone lines so as to expand his BBS from 2 lines to 4, as well as make arrangements for a TDD. It was at this point Wagner was informed he would have to pay business rates on all lines by US West. According to Blankenhorn, US West relented on the voice and TDD lines while maintaining that the BBS lines would have to be classified as business lines. Wagner filed what Blankenhorn calls an "appeal" at the Oregon PUC "for the BBS".

Wagner is reported to have closed his BBS almost immediately because he "can't afford it" at business rates, which blankenhorn states to be around $50 (presumably per month) on each line. Before closing his system, Wagner says he alerted regional SysOps via FidoNet to his plight. Wagner points out that some SysOps chipped in to pay for a lawyer. Blankenhorn quotes Wagner on a so-called "compromise proposal" that "they (US West) come up with a residential data line rate, as an alternate form of service." Wagner's proposal apparently included a guarantee of data quality at a rate that Wagner seems to assess at $5.00 above standard residential rates. Wagner asserts the proposal was rejected.

Wagner's comments on the hearing display optimism as he offers the thought that "the hearing went quite well. The tariff says a residential line is for social or domestic purpose. They ignored the social, they talked only about domestic. The BBS is as social as you can get."

In a series of quotes from Wagner on what he believes US West is doing, a grim picture is painted for more than BBS operators. For example: Wagner states "there is no question they want to apply this to all SysOps. Their position is that if it's not answered by a human voice, it's a business. A fax machine is a business, to them. So's an answering machine."

Wagner spoke of what he might consider a silver lining in his cloudy future as a SysOp when he told Blankenhorn that publicity must be bad for US West. He reinforces this idea by noting "one thing that hurt them (US West) badly was that they picked on me. I'm very hard of hearing. Most of my users are disabled. A large percentage of our SysOps here are disabled. And Mr. Holmes (US West's attorney in the Wagner case) was unprepared for that."

Blankenhorn talked with Judith Legg in the hearings section at the Oregon Public Utility Commission concerning the Wagner Case. He reports Legg told him "a hearing was held on the case in January, and US West has already submitted a 17-page brief supporting its position." Hearings Officer Simon Fitch was attributed as informing Newsbytes that Wagner "has until March 3 to file his own brief, after which reply briefs will be sought from both sides." Fitch is also reported to have said a decision in the case is due in late March or early April with final oversight from the Commissioners.

Attempts, by Blankenhorn, to contact attorney Steven Holmes at US West were unsuccessful. Apparently, no one else in the company was available for comment. Thus, the Newsbytes article contained no synopsis of US West's side of the issues in the Wagner case. Blankenhorn left the door open to a future update by noting information requested from US West would be reported as soon as that information is made available to Newsbytes.

So much for the abstract…

A FEW OBSERVATIONS: It seems that Blankenhorn must not have been able to obtain a copy of US West's brief before going to press. Otherwise, Blankenhorn would realize, and could have noted, that US West's comments have no impact on FAX or answering machines. BBS operation in general, and Wagner's BBS in specific, are the myopic focus of the brief. Blankenhorn also could have asked about and cleared up what appears to be a discrepancy between Wagner's apparent indication that he was running his BBS on 2 phone lines at the time he requested new lines, and the repeated references in the US West brief to Wagner's "3" BBS phone lines. Finally, I called Judith Legg myself on 2-6-92 and asked her about the actual timing of the hearing. She informed me that the hearing was indeed in December. In Blankenhorn's defense, Legg admits that she was under the mistaken impression that the hearing took place in January, and that this is probably what she told Blankenhorn. A check of the Oregon PUC's computerized schedules was necessary to clarify the actual hearing date.

        Walter Scott
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