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AT and T dials a wrong number

Before the ink dried on the government's order approving AT & T's acquisition of MediaOne, the telecom giant last week blundered into a confrontation with FCC Chairman Kennard and other commissioners over its announcement of new long-distance phone rates.

The dust-up adds a heavy dose of skepticism to some agency officials' views of whether AT & T will stick to a long list of promises aimed at assuaging fears that the company will use its market heft to monopolize high-speed Internet services and unduly influence cable programming.

AT & T may face tougher compliance scrutiny after announcing a phone- rate increase that would have affected tens of millions of customers only days after the FCC unveiled a deal, brokered at the urging of AT & T and other long-distance carriers, to reduce fees they pay to local phone companies.

AT & T quickly postponed the plan after Kennard and others voiced sharp criticism after the increase was reported in The New York Times. "I was totally misled by AT & T," said Commissioner Gloria Tristani.

But public advocacy groups pushing for an open-access rule on cable Internet operations said the FCC should not have been blindsided by AT & T's action. "It's a tragedy that it takes a front-page story in The New York Times to get the commission to do its job," said Jeff Chester, president of the Center for Media Education.

For their part, AT & T officials maintained that the telephone rate imbroglio won't affect the MediaOne deal. "The two are not related," said a company spokesman.