Landline rules frustrate telecoms


Telecom companies are pressing to be freed from the obligation of providing low-cost fixed-line telephone service to homes, a move critics say will leave Americans with less reliable or more expensive options. (Rich Lipski/The Washington Post)
April 12, 2012

More than 130 years after the first residential phone line was installed, telecom companies are pressing to be freed from the obligation of providing low-cost fixed-line telephone service to homes, a move critics say will leave Americans with less reliable or more expensive options.

Four states have passed laws that release the telephone companies from this requirement, as consumers flock to mobile phone and Internet devices. Several other state governments, facing vigorous lobbying by phone companies, are considering similar measures.

The push from the telecom industry is forcing policymakers to re-examine what has long been a basic guarantee of the government — that every American home should have access to a phone, along with other utilities such as water or electricity.

Industry executives and state lawmakers who support this effort want to expand the definition of the phone utility beyond the century-old icon of the American home to include Web-based devices or mobile phones.

They add that the companies are saddled with arcane rules that are on the wrong side of a clear consumer trend: One-third of homes have replaced their landlines with wireless phones.

The question, critics say, is whether the effort will leave behind rural residents, the elderly and others. They also worry whether the nation’s broadband networks could handle a massive emergency such as a terrorist attack.

“For many, landlines are their lifeline,” said Coralette Hannon, a senior legislative staffer at AARP, which has been fighting the legislative proposals. “In rural areas, wireless service can be spotty or expensive and not at all a real option.”

That was the concern in Kentucky, which ended its state legislative session Thursday without lawmakers having approved a controversial landline bill. Despite the efforts of dozens of lobbyists working on behalf of AT&T, the bill stalled when the House speaker expressed his opposition to the legislation.

“We are the third-poorest state in the nation, a state with significant rural areas,” said Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, a nonprofit organization focused on environmental, energy and utility matters, which opposed the bill. He added that the state couldn’t ensure essential services to residents if landline service ended.

The universal landline requirement has been repealed in Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin. There, new homeowners have no guarantee that they could order phone service at affordable rates, consumer advocates say. Those with landline phones could lose their service and have to get wireless phones or Internet-based services, such as Skype or Vonage.

Those aren’t affordable options for Susan Shaw, a resident of Xenia, Ohio. The 53-year-old grandmother could see her landline service from AT&T end if the state passes a law that would free the phone giant from its landline requirement.

But she’s not interested in paying for cellular service, which would probably be costlier than the $12 a month she pays for her plain old phone.

“I know about all the great things cellphones can do, but I have limited income and limited interest,” Shaw said.

Ohio Sen. Frank LaRose (R), who authored the bill in his state, said phone companies should not be forced to spend money on landline services when they could focus on providing high-speed Internet to state residents.

“Those rules were put in place decades ago,” LaRose said. “Forcing companies to use finite infrastructure dollars on plain old telephone doesn’t make sense today.”

Ohio, along with Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and California are considering bills that would absolve carriers such as Verizon and AT&T from the landline obligation. The matter is expected to be raised eventually in the District, Virginia and Maryland, which are served by Verizon, industry officials and consumer advocates said.

“What’s happening is being driven by consumer choices,” said David Young, vice president of federal regulatory affairs at Verizon. “We are already seeing a rapid drop of traditional wireline connections, and that is only going to continue.”

Added Joel Lubin, vice president of public policy at AT&T: “The train has left the station. Consumers are making their choices, and it’s not for plain, old telephones. Yet an outdated regulatory system still applies.”

Although the decision to repeal the universal landline requirement is in the hands of state governments, the Federal Communications Commission is considering ways to allocate federal funds to offset costs for some consumers, Lubin said. The agency has also passed rules that require Internet voice and wireless providers to guarantee the delivery of 911 calls.

But for some, such as Wisconsin Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D), wireless and satellite services are unreliable at her home, a farm outside Alma.

Vinehout has to drive eight miles to get her Verizon Wireless cellphone to work. Her satellite Internet service goes out with light snow and wind. She is concerned that she won’t be able to call public-safety responders in an emergency.

She plans to work to repeal the state law that takes effect Jan. 14, which ends AT&T’s obligation to serve her home and those in nine rural counties.

“This is a real public-safety problem, and what they offer as alternatives don’t reflect reality,” Vinehout said.

Staff writer Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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