For Whom the Bells Toll

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Get ready for even more of those calls asking you to switch long distance carriers. While the rest of the country sat on the couch watching football, highly-paid telecom lawyers spent yesterday scrambling to appeal the dramatic New Year's Eve ruling that allows the regional phone companies to enter the long-distance market. Officials of both the government and long-distance carriers AT&T, Sprint and MCI said they would challenge the decision, which chips away at yet another provision of the troubled 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The stakes are highest for AT&T. Unlike its long-distance competitors who serve mainly businesses, AT&T makes most of its money from residential customers -- the very people who might prefer the old days of one-stop shopping for local and long distance phone service. AT&T's chief challenger is SBC Communications, a consortium of several smaller Baby Bells that provides local service throughout much of the southwest. SBC wants to expand into the California residential long distance market, a telecom gold mine where existing carriers rake in half their total profits.

Although local carriers say they could be ready to go long in as little as 30-40 days, the billions at stake mean that a final ruling will probably be tied up in court for some time. But it might not be too early for Candice Bergen to think about switching to SBC.