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Expert says Legislature must foster Web access

SALEM -- A Southern Oregon software executive says the state Legislature must find ways to promote competition and cooperation if Oregon's outlying areas are to be wired for the technologies of the next century.

He said the Southern Oregon Telecommunications and Technology Council has taken no stand on legislation that would free utilities, including US West Communications, from state regulation in exchange for investing part of their income into fiber-optic improvements for rural areas.

On one hand, you want to help promote investment and allow companies to compete in markets such as Portland with competitive pressures, said Bob Hodgson, a council member and president of Productivity Solutions Inc. of Grants Pass. On the other hand, it's different if the company is the only provider in an area -- and if you give up that (regulation), you expose the people who do not have any options.

Hodgson and others spoke Monday to the Senate Business and Consumer Affairs Committee about telecommunications needs outside the Portland-Salem corridor, which has more than half the state's population within a 50-mile radius.

The committee is considering Senate Bill 142, which would free utilities from state regulation in exchange for 5 percent of their annual gross revenues going into a state-controlled fund for telecommunications access in rural areas. The Public Utility Commission and other critics say the bill would free US West from potential refunds and rate reductions amounting to more than $400 million that the PUC ordered in 1997. US West's appeal of the PUC order is pending in the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Chairman David Nelson, R-Pendleton, said the Senate committee would resume public testimony Feb. 5 on that bill and a companion tax credit bill.

Hodgson said legislation could resolve disputes such as Ashland's with Falcon Cable.

Ashland wants to use its municipal fiber-optic ring to provide cable television and offer Internet access; Falcon Cable wants to upgrade its system in stages to offer both across the Rogue Valley. At the hearing, Southern Oregon appeared to be better positioned than Eastern Oregon for advanced telecommunications access, but Central Oregon is set to be linked soon to the Oregon Enterprise Network, a state-backed fiber-optic system that now links Salem and Portland and eventually will be extended east to Burns.