Charter unveils phone service, starting with Jackson

Monday, June 26, 2006

Cable companies across the country have begun offering phone service in recent years.

Charter Communications has announced plans to "aggressively roll out" its phone service to Southeast Missouri this summer, starting with places like Jackson this week and expanding to Cape Girardeau in July.

The cable company will offer phone service this week to Jackson, Oran, Morehouse, Sikeston, Charleston and New Madrid, said Charter spokesman Brian Posnanski. Cape Girardeau is expected to receive the service in July, he said, as agreements for 911 emergency accessibility are worked out.

The service will be available to other Southeast Missouri communities throughout the summer.

New Charter phone subscribers can keep their current phone numbers with no service disruption when transferring their phone service, he said.

Charter first offered its phone service in Missouri in St. Louis two years ago and then added the Farmington and Park Hills, Mo., areas this May. It first launched phone service in Wisconsin in 2001 and has since expanded the service to more than 3.8 million customers.

Cable companies across the country have begun offering phone service in recent years as a means to better compete against telephone companies such as AT&T and Verizon.

A changing industry

Last week's announcement by Charter also comes after legislators recently shot down a proposal that would allow telephone companies like AT&T to offer video services through their phone lines.

"It's another indication how the industry is changing," said Marsha Haskell, AT&T's vice president of external affairs in Cape Girardeau. "But it does speak to what we were trying to do in this legislative session. ... We wanted a similar opportunity to give customers another choice for video services."

In April, the sponsoring senator pulled the plug on legislation that would have made it easier for phone companies to offer video services in Missouri. Instead of having to strike deals with each local government that has a cable franchise, the bill would have allowed television newcomers such as AT&T to instead get a state-issued franchise permitting them to enter multiple markets.

But cable companies -- chiefly Charter -- and some local governments complained the bill would have given a market edge to AT&T. One of the chief critics was state Sen. Jason Crowell, who said newcomers would not have had to offer TV service to the entire area covered by a cable provider to begin competing against them.

But Haskell said the need for more competition is just "more proof why those outdated rules don't apply anymore. That's been our point all along: The cable companies are providing telephone service, so telephone companies should be able to provide video services."

Regarding Charter's telephone service announcement, Haskell, said, "I knew it was coming. But, honestly, I still marvel at how this has all shaken out."

The way Charter sees it, though, is that they've had competition from satellite companies for years, Posnanski said.

"Now, we've finally got viable local phone competition," he said. "We're not a start-up. We're going to be here."

Charter's phone package will cost customers $39.99 a month, which pays for unlimited local and long-distance calls in the United States and Canada. If they are also cable television and Internet subscribers, the cost will be only $29.99 a month, which includes caller ID, call waiting and voice mail, Posnanski said.

At AT&T, the cost for a similar package is $49.95 a month, Haskell said, although that doesn't include calls to Canada. The package at AT&T does also include free repairs to wiring and jacks, caller ID, voice mail and two features of the customer's choice, such as three-way calling or call forwarding.

Posnanski said that Charter's new phone service does not employ voice-over-Internet-protocol technology. Instead, the phone calls actually run over the Charter network. Posnanski characterized it as a "virtual private network," where calls travel over the public phone lines.

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