By Tim Jones, Chicago Tribune Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

CHICAGO--Mar. 27--These days it's hard to imagine a night in front of the television without seeing the ubiquitous pitch from AT&T, Sprint or MCI, each telling us why their long-distance rates and service are superior to those of the competition.

Now imagine what will happen if Congress, as it is trying to do, removes many of the regulations that have rigidly segregated the telecommunications industry for 60 years.

Several times every prime-time hour, we could witness a corporate food fight, with the regional Baby Bells, big long-distance carriers and cable operators alternately promoting themselves and pummeling the other guys in a thoroughly confusing exchange of free-market, Madison Avenue ballistics.

This scenario is more than just plausible. It is probable in the approaching day when real distinctions separating regional phone companies,

long-distance carriers and cable companies are eliminated, enabling each to fully compete in the other's multibillion-dollar business.

For years, corporate chieftains in many industries, including telecommunications with its many protected fiefdoms, have talked about the need to deregulate, to create free-market competition, to establish a level playing field.

``When any of these guys start talking about a level playing field, it's time to hold onto your wallet,'' said Terry Barnich, the former chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission and now president of New Paradigm Resources Group Inc., a Chicago consulting company.

Businesses always have complained about regulations, except those that protect them. This behavior is at work in the telecommunications reform effort.

After the Senate Finance Committee approved a telecommunications reform bill last week, Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), one of two dissenting votes on the panel, observed that companies aren't looking for a level playing field but ``a legislative leg up'' on their competition, something each hopes Congress will write into the new law.

There is big money at stake, amounts that represent a sizable chunk of the nation's economy. The seven regional Baby Bells, which reported $88.3 billion in sales last year, are eager for a piece of the long-distance market, in which AT&T, Sprint and MCI racked up $100 billion in sales last year.

Although the cable industry is the small player in the trio - $23 billion in sales last year - it is a vitally important link to the high-tech interactive visions being spun. The bottom line is one that could result in all forms of communication and entertainment in a home being controlled and billed by a single company.

The enormous profit opportunities in this growing industry are matched by equally enormous risk, prompting Barnich to observe that ``if you are a devolving monopolist and you're looking forward to competition, you are an idiot because your shareholders are going to tar and feather you.''

Barnich and other industry observers note, however, that rapid technological advances are rendering many regulations obsolete. When deregulation comes - either enacted by Congress or ordered by the courts - companies that have become accustomed to operating in the cocoon of monopolistic protection must be able to react quickly.

That is why, despite the industry's claims of free-market devotion, the fight in Congress is so important. Just as each player possesses major strengths, each has significant weaknesses.

``Everyone wants the opportunity to enter the other's market but they see grave dangers to the public welfare if their own markets are entered,'' said Eli Noam, professor of finance and economics at Columbia University.

The Baby Bells worry about encroachments by long-distance carriers and cable companies into local phone service. The cable operators, who already have a negative public image to repair, fear the cash-heavy Baby Bells will use their wealth and existing customer connections to deliver phone and entertainment services that would render cable obsolete.

And the long-distance carriers worry about competition in their realm and how to reconnect with customers now controlled by the regional Bell companies.

As a prelude to deregulation, competitors are fighting in courtrooms, legislatures and regulatory agencies around the nation over companies' incursions onto another's turf.

``The level playing field is in the eye of the beholder,'' said Donald Frey, retired CEO at Bell & Howell Co. and now a professor of industrial engineering at Northwestern University.

Frey said he is optimistic Congress can reach an agreement on the bill, creating a new era of competition - and the likelihood of more television ads reflecting a game with more players and fewer rules.

``I don't think there's any question about it,'' he said. END!B&3?TB-TELECOMS

AP-NY-03-26-95 2005EST

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