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BellSouth's McCullouch seeks fair competition'

By By William F. West / community editor
Aug. 26, 2002
BellSouth Mississippi President John McCullouch wants his company to have a fair chance at competition, particularly in the area of Internet service.
McCullouch, 54, BellSouth Mississippi president since 2000, met last week with The Meridian Star editorial board.
He was accompanied by Patsy Tolleson, director of corporate and external affairs; James Greer, director of regulatory and external affairs; and C.D. Smith, regional manager.
The Meridian Star: As an industry expert, were you surprised at WorldCom's problems? How did you feel about all that?
McCullouch: Nobody likes to see bad news about them, even though they are a competitor of ours. And I go pretty far back as far as my relationship with the company because, as an attorney, I represented BellSouth at the Public Service Commission. And we had many an argument with WorldCom and other companies on many cases that were up there where we were on opposing sides. In fact, I have cross-examined (former WorldCom chief executive) Bernie Ebbers a couple of times at the Public Service Commission hearings.
Their's was a success story and it's unfortunate that it happened. And nobody likes to kick somebody while they're down. It has not reflected well on anyone, though. What I feel sorry for are those people who have invested their money. And I'm not talking about the high rollers. I'm talking about the moms and pops out there and the people that are just starting out and getting a little money saved up and invested. I do feel very, very sorry for them.
The Star: Is BellSouth a likely buyer of WorldCom? Does it have certain assets that BellSouth would like to acquire?
McCullouch: I'm not really privy to those kinds of negotiations, if there are indeed any discussions. All big companies look and think about lots of things and explore lots of things. Now, certainly, there are … parts of their business that would be attractive to anybody.
The Star: What parts? What are some of the diamonds in the rough?
McCullouch: I'm really not supposed to be commenting on that because I don't deal with that. People in our mergers and acquisitions group in Atlanta deal with issues like that. I have no idea whether or not they're looking at WorldCom … but I'm not supposed to be commenting on that, one way or another, WorldCom or anybody.
The Star: Why it is so important for BellSouth to get into the long distance service?
McCullouch: So that we can offer our customers all the services that customers look for from a communications company. We're the only telecom company in the state that can't provide long-distance telephone service.
The Star: Is this absolutely vital for BellSouth's future?
McCullouch: We haven't been able to provide it for a few years now, but it is vital to our continuing success. Yes, I think it is.
Patsy Tolleson: One-stop shopping is a term you hear often. And that's what John is talking about. Customers want to be able to get everything from one company.
The Star: What else is in your long-term growth picture?
McCullouch: Data has to be high up there, particularly if you can be put on a level playing field with your competitors and can provide data under the same rules and regulations that they do. Wireless is another part of our business. We're 40 percent owners of Cingular. We're in a joint venture with SPC.
James Greer: The data is just unbelievable where this can go.
The Star: Across the Internet?
Greer: Access to the Internet. When we get into long distance, we can transmit data across state lines. For example, a bank that's headquartered in Birmingham, they couldn't transmit data on our lines to Jackson. But that opens up our market to tremendous opportunities.
The Star: Has the company taken an official position on tort reform?
McCullouch: It can't be tilted more one way than another way. It has to be balanced and fair. And I know that there's a lot of rhetoric going on on both sides now.
But I've always had the philosophy that if our company has done something to harm someone, that person ought to be made whole. When I was an attorney handling our position for the company, that's the position that I took.
But if there is what I call an unfair or frivolous lawsuit, you have to fight that all the way. And it can be quite expensive, even if it's a frivolous lawsuit. It can be very, very expensive to fight those kinds of lawsuits. And I've seen all kinds of them. I've seen lawsuits that perhaps should have been brought, and I've seen lawsuits that should not have been brought.
The Star: Would it be better for the industry if there were no regulations at all?
McCullouch: We're still viewed by many, many people as sort of the only game in town. And that's not necessarily the case. And I think as more and more competition comes in that there may be a need to seek deregulation.
I don't see it happening overnight. I see it evolving. As more and more services get competitive and you have more people providing a particular type of service, you can seek to have it deregulated particularly in the wireless. For a long time it was regulated, but it's no longer regulated. The market has taken care of things. The market worked.
As I say, we're still viewed by a lot of people as a monopoly and we're not.