Some homeowners may see their landline telephone service eliminated under a provision in the new state budget bill now pending at the Statehouse despite warnings from critics that it will hurt senior citizens, the poor and people who live in rural areas.
The change has been sought by telephone companies for several years, arguing that installation and maintenance of landlines is a major expense while a growing number of customers are turning to cell phones and telephone service from internet providers.
Charles Moses, president of the Ohio Telecom Association, which represents 41 companies in the telecommunications industry, said provisions in the bill provide safeguards to ensure continued service to customers. Moses said under the plan the Ohio Public Utilities Commission will work with providers to identify parts of the state where there may be gaps in service comparable to landlines.
“If there is no comparable and affordable alternative, the PUCO could order the incumbent company to continue to give them a similar service at a similar price and that could go on literally forever,” Moses said.
Sarah Briggs, director of public affairs for AT&T, said the changes will allow the company to adapt to the marketplace.
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“The motivation is increased consumer and business demand for wireless and voice over Internet,” she said. “AT&T has seen a 70 percent decrease in traditional service over copper lines in the last 10 years.”
State regulators are unsure exactly how many people would be affected by the changes in telephone service contained in the bill. Holly Karg, director of public affairs for PUCO, said a state collaborative called for in the bill will work to identify the areas of the state and number of consumers involved. “The collaborative is directed to study, among other things, the internet-based transition and its effect on consumer protection, public safety, reliability and competition. The collaborative would also focus on affordability of alternate telecom services,” Karg said.
Critics like Ellis Jacobs, attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said the bill creates an undue amount of uncertainty for customers and he questions whether the safeguards in the bill will work.
“Right now if a phone company wants to withdraw service from an area they can petition the PUCO and show that nobody is going to be injured because there is alternative service. This just flips that all around. Now all they have to do is notify the PUCO that they want to drop service and the burden is on the customer to show why they shouldn’t be allowed to do that,” Jacobs said.
Even if alternative service is available, the quality and reliability of that service has been questioned by Gene Krebs, a former Republican legislator from Preble County and now chair of the governing board of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel. He argued coverage maps from cell phone companies are not accurate because they do not reflect the areas where service is weak and prone to dropped calls.
“Much of Ohio is what I call cell-free Ohio,” he said. “If there is such a thing as the information super highway I myself live on the information dirt road.”
Krebs estimated that 25 percent of the state does not have adequate cell phone service.
Internet service to rural areas is often equally weak, according to Krebs, who said he cannot watch Netflex at his home on weekends due to slow service when it is in high demand. He remains concerned about the impact of the change, even though the proposal has undergone several improvements since it was inserted into the budget bill by the governor, Krebs said.
“I believe that the governor’s office is acting in good faith,” he said. “I would say if you live in rural Ohio this issue takes on a little bit more color.”
State Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City, said he and other lawmakers heard extensive testimony on the deregulation plan. “I supported the stand-alone bill. We shouldn’t require companies to invest in this (traditional) technology when there is limited demand for it,” Beagle said.
Beagle is convinced that the safeguards in the current version of the plan within the state budget will work to protect consumers. “As new development goes out there will be a change in technology. People will not lose service. What you may see at some point is copper lines may not be maintained if there’s comparable service available,” Beagle said.
The telephone deregulation provisions are contained in the state budget bill, H.B. 64, which is headed to a joint House-Senate Conference Committee. Legislators face a June 30th deadline to pass the spending plan, with critics and supporters agreeing the deregulation aspects of the bill are likely to remain in the bill.