Bezeq Workers Finally Reconnect HOT Phones

Despite a court order, Bezeq continued throughout yesterday to block all 110,00 HOT telephone subscribers from calling the national telephone company's users. The Jerusalem District Court had ruled Wednesday night that Bezeq was required to reconnect HOT phones immediately, but Bezeq's workers simply refused to obey.

Only after an evening appearance in Labor Court did the employees accept the judge's "recommendation," and agree to return to work and reconnect HOT subscribers. Bezeq workers deliberately disconnected HOT's telephone services Wednesday, and the union refused to fix technical problems as part of its labor dispute.

Bezeq's management woke from its torpor only yesterday morning, when it urgently asked the Labor Court to force its workers to stop their sanctions.

Bezeq's union claims that the Communications Ministry's competition terms in the sector will lead to dismissals at the company.

Management said it ordered workers to repair the Bezeq-cable connection even before receiving the court order.

In a related development with horrible timing, Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson is expected to sign an official document allowing Bezeq to grant discounts of up to 10 percent to its largest business customers as soon as the telephony market is opened up for competition. The original promise was made by former communications minister Ehud Olmert in March 2004 so as to appease the company over the opening of competition in landline telephony services.

Apparently the agreement will allow Bezeq to grant discounts only to big businesses based on telephone usage.

Israel's watchdogs are evidently losing patience with the privatized national phone company and its new owners. "We should reexamine the antitrust laws pertaining to the telecommunications sector," a top regulator told TheMarker yesterday, calling the company's behavior "thuggish."

'Reexamine antitrust laws'

"The Antitrust Authority should re-analyze the definition of monopoly for the telecommunications market in this era of consolidation," he said, explaining that services are increasingly being merged over diverse communications platforms.

"We should consider declaring Bezeq to be a monopoly in all spheres of its operations, not only in wireline telephony," the regulator said, explaining that the company's presence is dominant throughout the telecom sector.

The regulator said he was outraged over Bezeq's "chutzpah," in disconnecting the rival cable network, thereby prohibiting HOT's 110,000 telephony subscribers from calling Bezeq users.

Although Bezeq's management petitioned the court yesterday to order workers to reinstate the connection, the regulator was not satisfied.

"Since Bezeq's privatization, the company's belligerence and thuggish behavior has only grown worse, and it is contemptuous of regulation," he said. "What, because Haim Saban and a group of investors paid a billion dollars, should we have to stand to attention? Maybe Bezeq was privatized too soon. Maybe the state should have waited for real competition to arise, not only the nascent signs."

Anger against Bezeq among the regulatory community is boiling: The company has ignored Communications Ministry limits on marketing campaigns, and has shrugged off the ministry's demands to see its paperwork. In addition to having disconnected a rival from its nationwide network, Bezeq is hiring the former prime minister's bureau chief, Dov Weissglas, as chairman to steamroll regulation even further. Consequently, some of the regulators are losing their calm.

"Recruiting Weissglas, that shows contempt for regulation, and is another sign of Bezeq's arrogance and conceit," the source said.

"Bezeq thinks it can buy regulation and that it deserves everything. Bezeq shareholders have to decide if they want a goalie against regulation, or a chairman who understands the telecommunications market, who can help the company advance."

He denied Bezeq's allegations that the state has broken promises made to the new owners when they bought the company: All agreements made are in writing, the source pointed out.

"It's unacceptable to allow Bezeq to cancel its organizational restructuring," the regulator said. "The harder it is for Bezeq, the easier it will be for consumers."