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The universal landline requirement has been repealed in Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.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.