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COUNTERPOINT: Should telecom firms be allowed to end landline service?

No, this is no time to hang up on landline customers

    The best arguments against a new Illinois law that allows AT&T to eventually end copper landline service are the exemptions found within it.
    The legislation, which passed the General Assembly in July, abolishes the state requirement that the company offer traditional phone service. So once AT&T gets final approval from federal regulators, it can send “cease to offer” notices to its 1.2 million business and residential landline customers in Illinois.
    But most people probably don’t know that buried deep in the 369-page legislation is a four- to five-year exemption for key customers, such as utilities and fire and police departments. It proves that copper landlines still play a vital role in our communications network — and it also begs the question:
    If it’s so important to protect landline service for those customers, then why not for the millions of others who depend on it as their most reliable connection to vital services such as 911, home security systems and medical monitoring?
    AT&T doesn’t have a good answer. For months, the company sounded the alarm that Illinois desperately needed to pass this legislation to “catch up this year” on modernizing its network — even though not one sentence in the bill requires the company to “modernize.” Then, once the bill passed, AT&T abruptly changed its tone: “… Traditional landline phone service from AT&T is not going away anytime soon. … It could take a number of years,” the company said.
    CUB supports a go-slow approach — but if what AT&T says is true, why the urgency to pass this legislation now? It’s not because AT&T is in a hurry to invest in a more modern telecom market — with more reliable phone service and faster broadband. This bill is less about modernization and more about AT&T disinvesting in Illinois to improve its profit margins by pushing customers onto pricey, less reliable service.
    Despite $58 billion in profits over the last five years, AT&T claims that it doesn’t have enough resources to modernize its network and also take care of its copper customers. But the network that AT&T claims is so burdensome has made the company billions through loyal customers who have paid for it many times over. (By a conservative estimate, if each of those 1.2 million landline customers pays $20 a month, that’s $288 million a year in revenue.) Plus, it’s doubtful AT&T plans to rip up that valuable network anytime soon. Even when calls travel mostly over the Internet, the company still needs a copper line to make the final connection to a home — so the network will continue to make money well into the future.
    The real reason AT&T wanted this bill is that the consumer protections the new state law abolishes were inconvenient. The Federal Communications Commission still must give final approval to end landline service, but the new state law all but pushes Illinois and consumer advocates out of that discussion and gives AT&T far too much power to dictate our telecom future.  
    AT&T says not to worry: Home phone service isn’t going away, “it’s actually getting better.”  But for today’s landline callers, those other options — wireless service, Internet-based phones, and bloated “triple-play” packages from the cable company — aren’t as easy, reliable or affordable as plain old telephone service.
    AT&T touts “modern landlines,” the Internet phone service formerly known as “U-verse.” But that’s only available to about half of the company’s service territory, and it requires a pricey Internet connection. Plus, you can’t make calls during a power outage — without a battery backup that you have to buy yourself.
    The company also promotes its “wireless home phone,” a traditional-looking receiver that is connected to the cell network. But AT&T admits the service isn’t compatible with security systems, fax machines and medical alert and monitoring services.
    No question, smartphones are great, but they don’t come cheap, and customers who tried to use their phones during disasters like Hurricane Sandy learned just how spotty or nonexistent the service can be. Even more worrisome: Advanced 911 — which can trace the exact location of a cellphone — won’t be fully implemented in Illinois until 2020 at the earliest. Plus, AT&T’s 14-state wireless 911 outage earlier this year doesn’t give traditional landline customers confidence that the company can provide satisfactory phone alternatives.
    The bottom line is that for Illinois’ most vulnerable phone customers traditional landlines don’t need to be charged, they don’t go out in an Internet or power outage, and they don’t leave 911 dispatchers guessing.
    Still, AT&T’s lobbyists argue that traditional phone service is costly, compared with other options for as low as $20 a month. Aside from the fact that it would be difficult to find a lot of wireless or Internet phone users who are paying just $20 a month, it’s the height of hypocrisy for AT&T to complain about the high-cost of landlines. This year, the company was successful in killing a price freeze on “safe-harbor plans” that for years gave customers cheap local service — for less than $20 a month.  If landline phone service gets more expensive, it’s because AT&T engineered it.
    While the company dismisses landline customers as a small percentage of its base, this debate isn’t about percentages, it’s about people.
    “I’m not against cellphones,” said Carol, whose landline connects to her pacemaker/defibrillator. “But we can’t guarantee cellphones will work all the time for important devices like mine.”
    If, as AT&T says, customers are abandoning traditional landlines in droves, then it shouldn’t be too long before the market works this out on its own. But that’s years from now. Until then, people like Carol — along with the big utilities and emergency services — can’t do without their landlines.
    Please visit to send a message to Washington to protect landline phone service for the customers who still need it. 
    Bryan McDaniel is director of governmental affairs for the Illinois Citizens Utility Board.

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