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Big Incumbents At It Again In Kentucky; Mimi Pickering in the Richmond Register

Yet again, lobbyists from AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell are lobbying state elected officials under the false guise of improving communications in Kentucky. In a Richmond Register opinion piece, Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group revealed the practical consequences of Senate Bill 99.

Republican Senator Paul Hornback is once again the lead sponsor on the bill. As usual, backers contend the legislation moves Kentucky communications forward. Last year, Pickering and her coalition worked to educate Kentuckians on SB 88, that would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement. We spoke with Pickering about the bill in Episode #44 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They had a similar fight in 2012.

In her opinon piece, Pickering describes the practical effect of this policy change:

It would allow them to abandon their least profitable customers and service areas as well as public protection obligations. But it is a risky and potentially dangerous bet for Kentuckians. Kentucky House members should turn it down.

Everyone agrees that access to affordable high-speed Internet is a good thing for Kentucky. However, despite what AT&T officials and their numerous lobbyists say, SB 99 does nothing to require or guarantee increased broadband investment, especially in areas of most need.

AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris claims that current Kentucky law prevents the company from investing in new technology. As Pickering points out, AT&T refused to build in unserved areas when offered federal funds. Those funds came with minimum obligations; AT&T was not interested.

The bill appeared to be on the fast track to passage, breezing through the Senate Economic Development, Labor, and Tourism Committee only ten days after being introduced. According to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, AARP, the Kentucky Resources Council, and several smaller cable and Internet service providers expressed opposition to the bill:

"We are not giving up our land lines. We want to hang onto them even as we get our cellphones because we think the land lines are more dependable," said Jim Kimbrough, president of AARP Kentucky.

...

Smaller cable companies and Internet providers told senators they worry the bill lacks language to protect them from unfair competitive tactics by AT&T once it's freed of even more PSC regulation, following earlier phone deregulation measures that passed in 2004 and 2006.

Pickering knows quick passage is dangerous. From her opinion piece:

How is this good for Kentucky? There is no good reason for the General Assembly to rush thorough the AT&T-backed legislation and surrender the rights and protections guaranteed to us under our long-standing communications laws.

SB 99 is bad news and big trouble for all of us, unless of course you are one of these telecommunication giants.

Verizon Caught Forcing Customers to Take Voice Link Service Across New York

The war over keeping copper alive rages on in New York with more stealthy antics from Verizon. Stop the Cap! now reports that, rather than wait for a hurricane to take out the copper lines in the Catskills, it will quietly shift seasonal home owners to VoiceLink as they request reconnection. Stop the Cap! also published a letter [PDF] from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) who allege Verizon has also been installing VoiceLink in the City.

We recently visited this drama with Harold Feld from Public Knowledge on Broadband Bits podcast #52. He and Christopher discussed the issue as it applies to Fire Island in New York and Barrier Island in New Jersey. Verizon has permission from the New York Public Services Commission (NYPSC) to use the VoiceLink product in place of copper wires on a temporary basis as a way to get service to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Seven months is a long time to go without phone service.

Our readers know that VoiceLink short changes users, especially those that rely on phone connections for Life Alert, want to use phone cards, or want the security of reliable 911 service. Feld also noted in his Tales from the Sausage Factory blog, that Verizon was rumored to be making secret plans to expand VoiceLink well beyond the islands, regardless of the limitations of the NYPSC order. 

It appears the rumors were true and only scratch the surface. The letter from CWA District 1 President, Chris Shelton, to the NYPSC relates how members engaged in work for Verizon were trained to install VoiceLink and that the company installed the product in a variety of locations in New York City. One location was a residential building in Manhattan. Reportedly, when elderly residents discovered it would not support Life Alert, they resisted. Verizon counters that it offered VoiceLink as a temporary substitute without charge to the residents, not that it attempted to force the product on residents as CWA alleges [PDF of Verizon's Letter]. According to Verizon, the residents' copper connections were up and running again in June. CWA goes on to allege that Verizon continues to shift staff from copper related positions to installing VoiceLink in Buffalo and Watertown [PDF of Shelton's letter].

CWA Logo

Customers from the Catskills described their experience to Stop the Cap!:

“I got transferred twice and finally ended up talking to someone pushing something called Voice Link.”

...

“I called them back and told them they must be mistaken because I don’t own property on Fire Island and they told me it was no mistake and that they were preparing to distribute Voice Link all across the area and I was lucky to be among the first before they ran out,” the customer tells us.

From another customer:

“When I called to get my dial tone back, Verizon transferred me to a special repair representative who wanted to install Voice Link instead,” he tells us. “It was explained I would be better off with Voice Link and would get more calling features for less money and get national calling, free voicemail, and all of these other extras.”

The customer tried to turn the offer down, but Verizon made it difficult to refuse.

“You really had to argue with them and say no at least a dozen times,” our reader tells us. “The reason I said no is that I tried that same type of service from Verizon Wireless and it sucked. I raised my voice and they finally agreed to reconnect my phone.”

AARP recently expressed its displeasure at Verizon's shenanigans. Wireless Week reprinted parts of their statement [Google Docs]:

AARP Logo

State director for AARP in New York Beth Finkel said in a statement, "Under the cover of Sandy, this push by Verizon could well work towards advancing the company's corporate strategy of steering customers towards more expensive services, but that doesn't match up to protecting the needs and interests of consumers."

AARP’s primary concerns over the switch to Voice Link include compatibility issues with Life Alert and security systems, the possibility of premature and widespread abandonment of wireline services, limitation of Internet service options for Voice Link customers and the end of access to services like collect calling and “0” dial-in access for operators.

Verizon responded by accusing AARP for "crying wolf" and extolled the virtues of VoiceLink. Wireless Week also reports:

[Verizon spokesman John] Bonomo said that Verizon will maintain the copper network where it makes customer service and business sense to do so, adding that the vast majority of Verizon copper customers have no issues at all with their service. 

The complaints and the first CWA letter prompted New York's Attorney General to file an Emergency Petition with the NYPSC. The AG asked the NYPSC to stop Verizon from any more illegal installations and for sanctions:

Unlike Fire Island, wireline network damage from Superstorm Sandy cannot be used as an excuse for substituting Voice Link for wireline service in the Catskills, where the storm had limited impact. Instead, it appears that in the Catskills, Verizon has chosen to pursue the company’s business strategy in blatant disregard for the Commission’s Order.

The Commission’s May 16 Order could not have been clearer in limiting Verizon’s substitution of Voice Link for wire line service to western Fire Island, to enable evaluation of this unproven technology on a pilot basis.

Verizon’s provision of Voice Link outside the confines of western Fire Island is illegal, and its open defiance of the Commission’s May 16 Order must be met with effective sanctions.

NY Public Service Commission Logo

On July 9th, the PSC decided to extend the comment period to September 13. So far, the agency has received over 400 public comments.

Fortunately, New York is not one of the growing number of states to deregulate phone systems so the NYPSC still has authority to act. As Feld notes on his blog:

If New York eliminated its COLR regulations, as a bunch of other states have done, then Verizon would not need to provide service at all. You would take Voice Link and be grateful for it — peasant. As it stands, New York has a Public Service Commission that can investigate and decide based on local evidence and local factors whether anything needs to be done. For example, even if the NY PSC decides Verizon did not violate the terms of its tariff, it might want to provide some guidelines to make sure that these disputes about what kind of sales tactics are permissible do not come up again.

Whatever path New York chooses, other states will be watching. While many have relinquished their ability to act for their own citizens, states that still possess the power to regulate wireline service, and by extension the IP transition, need to take note. Verizon is choosing its business model over the well-being of its customers and not afraid to step on legislative toes to do it. 

IP Transition Catches Fire Island - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode #52

We welcome Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge back to the show to discuss the latest update in the so-called IP Transition. Back in episode 32, Harold explained the five fundamental protections needed for our telecommunications system.

Today he returns to discuss the ways in which some of the islands devastated by Sandy are being turned into Verizon experiments as Verizon refuses to rebuild the copper phone number or upgrade to fiber; instead Verizon is installing an inadequate substitute, as we covered in this story.

Harold explains why this turn of events in New York and New Jersey is an important harbinger for the rest of us and why states should not premarturely deregulate important consumer protections like carrier of last resort and public utility commission oversight.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Verizon Plans to Abandon Copper Wires In Islands Damaged by Sandy

Victims of Sandy are still recovering from the killer storm that ripped through the east coast last year. Two places hardest hit by the "Frankenstorm" were Fire Island, New York and the Barrier Island in New Jersey. In addition to homes and property, residents lost phone and Internet communications when telephone wires went down. They are still waiting to be reconnected.

Our readers know about the huge fight that has embroiled consumer advocates and the leading telephone providers in the past few years. AT&T and Verizon seek deregulation to escape the "carrier of last resort" obligation that requires maintenance of traditional copper lines for telephone service. AT&T and Verizon want to shed that responsibility in favor of wireless service that is less expensive to maintain, even though it does not support the range of uses today's copper networks do. 

Verizon is the incumbent telephone provider in Fire Island and Barrier Island but decided it will not repair damaged lines. It wants to instead deploy its inferior Voice Link wireless service on the island.

The Voice Link technology basically attaches to your house and uses Verizon's cellular network to connect the telephones in your home. Homeowners can continue to use their home phones, but the quality tends to be worse than on a proper wired telephone network. 

Under federal law,  telephone providers are obligated to replace or repair downed copper lines unless they substitute with a "line improvement," such as fiber-optic lines. Voice Link cannot be described as a "line improvement" - the only benefit it provides is that it costs Verizon less to build and maintain. 

Public Knowledge Logo

Jodie Griffin from Public Knowledge recently pointed out some of the many shortcomings of Voice Link, as revealed on Verizon's own Terms of Service. The people most harmed by this scaled back service include the people who, in one way or another, are most vulnerable. Harold Feld, also from Public Knowledge, addressed what he sees as the most critical changes and who those changes most affect:

1. Voice Link will not allow you to receive collect calls, use calling card minutes or other forms of cheap long-distance provider, and requires you to have a separate international plan to make international calls.

Who gets hurt most. Immigrant communities, anyone with a loved one incarcerated or who otherwise needs to make a collect call. Since Voice Link also does not support any data plan, anyone who used to subscribe to VZ DSL and depended on Skype or other VOIP product is equally out of luck. Again, given the tremendous use of Skype by immigrant communities to call relatives back in their country of origin, this hits them particularly hard.

 2. Voice Link will  not work with life alert systems or security alarm systems.

Who gets hurt. The elderly trying to maintain independence. Anyone with a burglar alarm or fire alarm system that does not have independent wireless connections.

 3. Voice Link will not work with DVRs or Fax machines.

Who gets hurt. Any consumer that owned this kind of equipment and stuck with Verizon because they wanted to keep using it.

 4. Voice Link will not work with credit card machines or other electronic payment processing.

Who gets hurt. Small businesses, especially when combined with losing their fax service to take orders by fax.

 5. 9-1-1 calls may fail due to congestion on network or for other reasons, including Verizon negligence in routing the call.

Who gets hurt.  Well, any of those elderly whose Life Alert no longer works, for a start.

Voice Link also cannot be used for Internet access, which whittles down an already short list of providers. 

FCC Logo

Verizon appeared to be circumventing the process until a June 7th request to the FCC. The telecom giant received permission from the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC), and immediately began nurturing a plan to follow suit in other locations. Harold Feld, from Public Knowledge, wrote about Verizon's long term plans on his Tales of the Sausage Factory blog:

Since the NYPSC gave Verizon permission to deploy Voice Link instead of copper on Fire Island (at least on an interim basis), Verizon has moved full speed ahead to deploy Voice Link in other areas where Sandy destroyed the infrastructure, and is gearing up to deploy Voice Link in Florida to replace copper with Voice Link in something called “Project Thunder,” no doubt in anticipation of the active hurricane season predicted by the National Weather Service at NOAA.

Verizon's action is shifting U.S. communications policy without moving through the proper (however flawed) channels of the FCC, shifting the balance away from the public interest. If the FCC allows Verizon to move forward unilaterally, AT&T will certainly follow suit. In a later post, Feld wrote:

In some ways, this is a little thing impacting only a few communities. In other ways, it is a very big deal. If there is a single moment to point to and say “This is it! This is The Day We Started To Shut Down The Phone Network,” that day is today. With this little routine barely noticed filing for an administrative procedure that impacts a handful of communities.

While the FCC will ask for public comment on Verizon's application, we should contact them now to express our concern about this situation. The public deserves a policy and a process for replacement of old copper lines. That policy needs to include improved service - not a more limited communications mechanism - and needs to be in place now rather than during natural disaster recovery.

Kentucky Preserves Basic Telephone Protections Despite AT&T Predation

Earlier this year we reported on SB 88 in the Kentucky legislature. The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Paul Hornback and authored by AT&T, would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement and reduced consumer protections. A similar bill in 2011 was also defeated by a coalition of public interest groups.

This is one of a series of bills crafted by AT&T and ALEC that has been explained in great depth by the National Regulatory Research Institute in their 2012 review [pdf] as well as by Bruce Kushnick in this report [pdf].

Advocates on the side of consumers, including ILSR, were happy to see the bill defeated in the House. Though AT&T will undoubtedly be back again in future years, this victory shows the massive corporate carriers are vulnerable. In addition to blocking harmful deregulation, this is an example of how an organized coalition can protect the public interest.

I spoke with Mimi Pickering, Director of the Appalshop Community Media Initiative in Whitesburg, Kentucky. She described how local groups defeated the bill with the facts. Appalshop teamed up with nonprofit Kentucky Resources Council (KRC), AARP Kentucky, the AFL-CIO, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and several other groups. The coalition explained the complexities of the proposal and spelled out what could happen to landline service without consumer protections.

Appalshop Logo

KRC is an environmental advocacy group that helped stop SB 88 by providing critical research to educate the public and lawmakers. In Episode #44 of our podcast, Pickering and KRC Director Tom FitzGerald describe the coalition's work. KRC put the bill on its "Ugly" list early in the session and Fitzgerald dedicated significant time to analyzing the bill and spreading the word about its pitfalls. 

In a January Kentucky.com opinion piece, Fitzgerald described in detail how passage of the bill would affect households directly and indirectly. Pickering says his ability to translate legislative jargon was critical to the victory. By spelling out the likely outcomes for legislators and citizen groups, KRC and FitzGerald gave lawmakers the facts they needed to make informed decisions.

AT&T relied on a campaign of fear and misinformation. In contrast with FitzGerald's analytical opinion piece, AT&T Kentucky's President Mary Pat Regan penned a fluff piece about SB 88. She claimed the proposal would encourage competition and that residents already had abundant choice. Kentuckians, especially those in rural communities, knew better. Throughout, AT&T claimed that failing to pass the bill would result in Kentucky falling behind technologically.

Kentucky Resources Council

Kentucky media picked up on the story, perhaps anticipating an interesting replay of the 2011 battle. Kentucky Tonight with Bill Goodman, televised an interview with FitzGerald, an AT&T attorney, Ron Bridges from the AARP Kentucky, and the executive director of Citizens for a Digital Future (CDF), an astroturf group supporting the group. Pickering believes exposure from the show increased momentum and contributed significantly to the campaign.

CDF, an organization claiming to represent senior citizens, ran an aggressive robocall campaign to push the bill. FitzGerald investigated the roots of CDF and found their leading national member was AT&T. He describes another member organization, 60 Plus, as "Rove-esque."

The robocall strategy back-fired when legislators of targeted districts in eastern Kentucky took offense. The calls named legislators who opposed the bill and claimed they were trying to impede progress in Kentucky and circumvent the legislative process. Chairman of the House Tourism Development and Energy Committee and Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark from eastern Kentucky knows how hard it is to get cell phone service in rural areas. He was particularly annoyed by CDF/AT&T's "heavy-handed" threats.

AT&T Wants to Gut Consumer Protections

AT&T and its allies also refused invitations to resolve problems with the bill. FitzGerald wrote several versions of a compromise proposal but AT&T would not give workable solutions the time of day. In the end, obstinance hurt their position.

When AT&T promised to increase its investment in Kentucky, FitzGerald looked at the numbers they supplied. He found no evidence for an increase beyond what they were already slated to invest. Lawmakers did not appreciate the wiley attempt to fool them.

Pickering, FitzGerald, and other leaders of the coalition used facts, education, and a willingness to cooperate to shed light on AT&T's dark motives. With a little media coverage, the strategy defeated millions of lobbying dollars. We know AT&T and other powerful telecommunications giants will continue to push for similar deregulation. However, this struggle in Kentucky can definitely be called a VICTORY for the public interest. 

Kentucky Coalition Takes Down AT&T Bill to Remove Consumer Phone Protections - Community Broadband Bits #44

Episode #44 of our Community Broadband Bits podcast expands on our story exploring a major victory over bad AT&T-driven legislation in Kentucky. We welcome Mimi Pickering of Appalshop and Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.

We discuss why the AT&T-authored bill to gut consumer protections was bad for Kentucky and how a terrific coalition of public interest groups, unions, and others were able to protect the public interest. This was the second time they have defeated a similar bill, offering important lessons to those of us in different states that have not yet abandoned basic consumer protections for the telephone just because AT&T told our legislature they were unnecessary.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 36 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Mount Carmel for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Kentuckians Once Again Fighting to Keep Landlines

Last year, we reported on the failed SB 135, which would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement in the state. The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Paul Hornback would have let AT&T decide who could receive basic telephone service and would have limited consumer protections.

Last year's bill did not become law, but a progeny, SB 88, has already passed in the Kentucky Senate and was received in the House on February 15th. (We'd like to report what committee will hear it first but the Kentucky Legislative web has not yet published that information.) Senator Hornback is again the chief author of the bill, crafted by AT&T and its ALEC pals.

The Kentucky Resources Council (KRC) provides an analysis of SB 88 and a prognosis on how it would affect Kentuckians. KRC must be feeling deja vu, as are many organizations looking out for rural dwellers who depend on their landlines. These bills continue to be introduced year after year as large telecommunications companies spend millions of lobbying dollars, also year after year.

WMMT, Mountain Community Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky, recently reported on the legislation. Sylvia Ryerson spoke with Tom Fitzgerald from KRC, who discussed the analysis. From KRC's report on the legislation:

At potential risk is the opportunity for existing and new customers, to obtain stand-along basic telephone services from the incumbent telephone utility, or “Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS)” as it is called. Those most adversely affected by this loss of access to basic, stand-alone, telephone service are those least able to obtain affordable and reliable alternatives – those who live in rural, lower density areas, and the poor in dense, urbanized areas who have no affordable alternative priced as low as POTS.

Kentucky Resources Council

The main concerns with the bill include:

Removal of power from the Public Service Commission to hear and resolve complaints about local exchange service. This would affect voice service, operator assistance, directory assistance, and accurate 911 assistance. Restoring lost service is often a waiting game for rural customers served by AT&T. With no where to go, customers can lose their connection to family and the outside world for even longer periods. As with many other provisions of this bill, the elderly are the biggest casualty. Healthcare matters are  often handled over the phone, including my dad's pacemaker monitoring.

In areas where there are more than 5,000 households, offering basic stand-alone service would be at the provider's discretion. Service could be terminated without prior regulatory approval if there are any other voice services offered to the customer, even if that service was from an affiliate. This lack of competition would likely lead to cost increases for people who cannot afford them. Another scenario would be the company's requirement for customers to bundle services, forcing those least able to afford it to purchase services they do not need or want just to get telephone service.

In communities where there are fewer than 5,000 households, the current providers (AT&T, Windstream, or Cincinnati Bell) could cease to offer stand alone landline service of there was available voice wireless service, even if that service was less effective for 911 purposes. Again, the "forced bundle" would be an issue.

They could also petition to be relieved of the obligation to provide basic telephone service if they meet certain criteria regarding the availability of voice services from other providers in the area. For example, if there is a broadband provider "capable" of providing voice services (contrasted with one that actually "does provide" voice services) the provider could be relieved of the obligation. Again, that "capable" provider does not have to offer the service as a stand alone, but may require bundling.

Providers can use any technology they wish if they decide to continue the "provider of last resort" obligation, which will make that obligation completely deregulated. This tactic is the backbone of the private sector's efforts to deregulate. For more on this strategy, we encourage you to listen to our conversation with Harold Feld on the 23rd episode of the Broadband Bits Podcast.

Telephone

For more detail on the bill, and all its shortcomings, take a few moments to review the detailed analysis by KRC. The full text of the bill, its amendments, and the status, are available on the Kentucky General Assembly website.

So what could be gained for Kentuckians by passage of such a bill?

From a Courier-Journal report by Joseph Gerth:

Proponents of Senate Bill 88 say the bill would allow companies like AT&T, Cincinnati Bell and Windstream to sink more money into expanding wireless broadband communications rather than costly old, outmoded land lines.

History shows us, however, that promises made by regulated companies today often end up as foggy memories tomorrow. We have seen time and time again how dergulation given in exchange for promises results in a breach of the social contract. This is known as Kushnick's Law:

"A regulated company will always renege on promises to provide public benefits tomorrow in exchange for regulatory and financial benefits today."

Rather than wait to be taken advantage of again, we encourge you to call the toll-free legislative message line 1-800-372-7181 and leave a message that will be delivered to all legislators. This is especially critical if you live in Kentucky, but legislation like this will march across all states if it passes here or elsewhere. 

Ohio Legislation Threatens Rural Landline Phone Service

Once again, consumers must fight to preserve their landline telephone service. This time, the Ohio General Assembly is pondering legislation that can end traditional service for up to 1 million Ohio residents.

Our readers know about the efforts of ALEC and AT&T to drastically reduce their obligation to provide landlines across the country. Up to now, telephone companies were required to serve everyone, but those requirements are under attack, state by state. Bills have emerged in Mississippi, Kentucky, New Jersey and California.

The very real fear is that Ohio's Senate Bill 271 (SB271) will increase telephone prices, reduce service quality, and cause many to lose access to reliable 911 service. Many of those who still depend on landlines, include senior citizens. From an article on the Public New Service:

AARP Ohio State Director Bill Sundermeyer says, besides preserving social contact, land-line phones are needed to protect seniors' health and safety. For instance, some seniors use the phone line to transmit routine health information from equipment in their home to their doctor's office, he says.

"They can make an evaluation of a person's heart and how's it working, of their lungs, etc. That information would be very difficult to transmit over a cell phone."

(on a personal note, I can attest to this….my father routinely uses his landline telephone to send data to the clinic about his pacemaker to make sure it is functioning correctly)

The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) also expresses concern with the bill because it would allow telephone companies to stop providing local service in places labeled as "fully competitive." In the SB271 Fact Sheet (read the PDF, which offers a map of the qualifying areas), the OCC explains the problem with this definition:

Ohio Consume Council seal

To be considered “competitive,”
 a telephone company has to show that only two other companies provide service somewhere in the exchange, but not necessarily everywhere in the exchange. The other companies might not provide basic service, their services might not be comparable in price to the telephone company’s basic service, and their services do not have to be available to all customers within the exchange.

Although this test was designed for 
the single purpose of giving telephone companies limited flexibility in pricing customers’ basic service rates, SB
271 would give that competitive test
 an entirely new purpose. Telephone companies would be allowed to declare their entire service territory “fully competitive” if they have shown that all of their exchanges have passed this minimal competitive test—and then could begin withdrawing telephone service from customers in July of 2013 or 2014.

The bill would also allow telephone companies to use the cometititve test to avoid complying with current minimum service quality standards. If companies are exempted, they are not required to adhere to consumer protections regarding billing, repairs, and disconnections.

SB271, like similar legislation in other states, specifically limits Public Utilities Commission of Ohio's (PUCO's) authority to act on behalf of Ohio consumers. Under SB271, PUCO can no longer require a telephone company to serve any particular customer or group of consumers.

This is not the first strike at telephone regulations in Ohio. Two years ago, the Ohio General Assembly passed SB162. That bill allowed telephone companies to raise prices by as much as $1.25 each year for basic telephone service in exchanges that met the competitiveness test. One saving grace in SB162 was the requirement that a Select Committee be established to review the effects of SB162.

Whether or not that Committee will have the opportunity to meet and review the current environment is questionable. SB271 passed the Senate and is now under consideration by a House Committee.

[The coordinator for the Rural Broadband Policy Group, Edyael] Casaperalta says no new telecommunication matters should be introduced until that committee is formed and its report is complete.

"We should not even be considering another deregulation bill without first learning about what type of impact and assessing the impact of that first deregulation bill in 2010."

The Rural Broadband Policy Group is part of the National Rural Assembly, which works on a wide range of issues affecting rural America.

Public Service Commissioner Calls Mississippi Gov "Coin-Operated"

We have watched in growing horror as AT&T and other telco lobbyists have gone from state to state gutting telecommunications oversight. In several states, you no longer have an absolute right to a telephone - the companies can refuse to serve you if they so choose.

We tip our hat to Phil Dampier at Stop the Cap, who alerted us to this story. AT&T convinced Mississippi legislators to remove consumer protections for telecommunications.

Northern District Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley is unhappy with a new state law that will strip oversight over AT&T. Presley plans to personally file suit in Hinds County Circuit Court against the law, calling it unconstitutional.

“It violates the state constitution,” Presley said of the bill during an interview with the Daily Journal. “There’s no doubt AT&T is the biggest in the state, and this bill will allow them to raise rates without any oversight at all.”

House Bill 825 strips away rate regulation of Mississippi landline service and removes the oversight powers the PSC formerly had to request financial data and statistics dealing with service outages and consumer complaints. The law also permits AT&T to abandon rural Mississippi landline customers at will.

As we've seen elsewhere (as in California), AT&T worked with ALEC to push this through - though Rep Beckett (R-Bruce) doesn't think AT&T will raise its rates or abandon parts of the state. Time will tell - but Beckett won't be the one to suffer when the inevitable occurs. Thanks to AT&T and ALEC, he already got his.

Rural Kentucky Telephone Access Threatened by Additional Legislation

The National Rural Assembly, an advocate for America's hinterland, continues to track harmful legislation moving through the Kentucky Legislature. The assembly's Rural Broadband Policy Group in February publicized Senate Bill 135which eliminates the "carrier of last resort" requirement that big telcos provide basic phone basic and 911 service in rural Kentucky (Feb. press release on SB135). The bill's sponsor Senator Paul Hornback attempted to distance the negative publicity of SB 135 by crafting a new Senate Bill 12 with similar language.  SB 12 cleared a Senate panel today to the dismay of opponents.

After June 30, 2013, AT&T and other electing "Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers" (ILECs) would no longer be required to provide basic landline telephone service to all persons in a service area, and rural Kentuckians would no longer be assured of access to reliable basic phone service, including 911-emergency service. This bill would be especially harmful for rural people, because they are more likely to be in areas phone companies would decide not to serve, if given the choice. If the Kentucky bill succeeds, we expect major telephone companies to try similar bills in other states. The Rural Broadband Policy Group thinks that both bills need to be killed. After June 30, 2013, AT&T and other electing "Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers" (ILECs) would no longer be required to provide basic landline telephone service to all persons in a service area, and rural Kentuckians would no longer be assured of access to reliable basic phone service, including 911-emergency service. This bill would be especially harmful for rural people, because they are more likely to be in areas phone companies would decide not to serve, if given the choice. If the Kentucky bill succeeds, we expect major telephone companies to try similar bills in other states.

The Rural Broadband Policy Group thinks that both bills need to be killed. Possible repercussions:

  • Customers left at the mercy of a utility and its affiliated companies to raise the price for basic service in an area where no other competitor exists. 
  • Possible "redlining" of poor and remote communities where providing service is more costly or higher-maintenance. 
  • Strip the Public Service Commission of its authority to protect costumers by investigating complaints regarding basic telephone service quality.
  • Carriers could decide to abandon or retire their wirelines, resulting in loss of access to customers by the competitors.

These de-regulation measures are being crafted by AT&T and would also benefit competitors Windstream and Cincinnati Bell. (See our February story Kentucky Bill Could End Rural Telephone Service for Some.) In fact the Lexington KY Herald-Leader's John Cheves reported that Sen. Hornback was flanked by AT&T executives during the panel.  Cheves notes:

AT&T has significant clout in Frankfort. It employs 31 legislative lobbyists, including a former PSC vice chairwoman and past chairs of the state Democratic and Republican parties, spending about $80,000 last year on legislative lobbying. Its political action committee has given at least $91,000 in state political donations since 2007.

The committee voted 9-to-1 to approve the bill and send it to the Senate floor. The sole no vote came from Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville.