Whidbey Telecom and Sprint finally reach agreement

Whidbey Telecom has reached an agreement to allow Sprint Communications Company into the local telephone company’s territory.

But even though the battle over the interconnection agreement between the companies has been settled — the companies feuded over the issue for months — the two sides still disagree on what the arrangement may mean to customers.

While Whidbey Telecom officials say nothing will change, Sprint officials say customers could see lower rates. And soon.

The dispute over an interconnection agreement hit a fever pitch earlier this year when Sprint lawyers accused Whidbey Telecom of foot-dragging on negotiations and complained to the state agency that regulates utilities.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission eventually sided with Sprint and recently issued a terse rebuke against Whidbey Telecom.

Sprint had been seeking access to Whidbey Telecom’s infrastructure on behalf of Millennium Cable.

The primary focus of the agreement intended to provide for the exchange of local calls between Sprint and Whidbey Telecom.

After the commission stepped in, an agreement was quickly reached. Company officials on both sides anticipate that they will begin exchanging local calls later this year.

While the two companies have reached an agreement, officials still disagree on what that will mean for customers.

Whidbey Telecom officials said that the added competition won’t make much of a difference for locals.

Julia Henny DeMartini, Whidbey Telecom’s vice president, stressed that the proceedings have had no negative effects for Whidbey Telecom customers.

“The recent commission proceeding is not expected to have any effect upon the quality or availability of the services that we offer to our customers,” she said in a statement.

“Whidbey Telecom has been in the South Whidbey community for over 100 years, and we are committed to continuing our traditions of high service standards and ongoing deployment of innovative technology to serve our community,” DeMartini said.

Sprint spokesman John Taylor said that the agreement means more choices and potentially lower rates for South Whidbey customers.

“There are companies that have been in a community for 100 years. They are a monopoly and they behave like a monopoly,” he said.

“If there is competition in the marketplace, essentially what it means is that customers in your community have more choices,” Taylor said. “Choices often lead to lower rates.”

Marilyn Meehan, a spokeswoman for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said these kinds of disputes are very common.

The commission processes between 100 and

120 such agreements each year, she said, and the commissioners often have to come down with a firm hand.

The monopoly company tries to defend its territory, but the rules are clearly laid out by the law, Meehan said.

“Sprint will provide access to the phone network for Millennium Cable. It provides more choices for customers. It will be more competition, and competition generally leads to lower rates,” she said.

The issue arose when Sprint complained to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission in October that Whidbey Telecom violated its duty under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to negotiate in good faith to let Sprint use its network. Arbitration was initiated.

While Whidbey Telecom’s lawyers continued to fight the proceeding — arguing that Sprint’s petition for arbitration was untimely, improperly served and the commission didn’t have jurisdiction — the commission said in its order that it appeared that Whidbey Telecom intentionally obstructed and delayed negotiations by relying on “slim and transparently misleading arguments.”

In return, Whidbey Telecom said that the finding that it had failed to negotiate in good faith was damaging to its standing and reputation and may pose collateral consequences for the company.

The commission didn’t buy it.

“Whidbey simply makes no showing of actual deprivation of property, its only remotely colorable claim,” according to the commission’s order. “Hurt feelings are not enough to support a constitutional claim.”

The commission closed its arbitration proceedings after Sprint and Whidbey Telecom worked out a fully negotiated interconnection agreement.

DeMartini said the issues that were involved were quite complex and involved the application of federal and state statutes and rules that are not easily reconciled.

“Whidbey Telecom raised those issues in good faith and in an effort to comply with its legal obligations under both Federal and state law,” she said in the statement.

“Similar issues have arisen elsewhere in the country, with conflicting results. In large measure, the issues presented in this matter involved the regulatory status of new marketplace entrants who use a technology referred to as VoIP,” she said.

VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol, is a technology that allows customers to make voice calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular phone line.

DeMartini said Sprint and Whidbey Telecom interpreted the laws guiding such collaborations differently.

“That status is largely a matter for determination by the Federal Communications Commission, but it raises significant questions as to the manner in which state laws apply,” she said.

However, after the commission stepped in, DeMartini said, the conflict was smoothed over quickly.

“Sprint and Whidbey Telecom were able to agree on many issues, but some required commission guidance,” she said. “Once the commission gave guidance on those issues, Sprint and Whidbey Telecom were able to come to a full agreement.”

Whidbey Telecom recently filed a request for approval of the agreement, and that agreement has now been approved by the commission, DeMartini said.

“Whidbey Telecom is moving forward to implement that agreement,” she said.

Michaela Marx Wheatley can be reached at 221-5300 or

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