AT&T-backed legislation to cut POTS lines limits affordable, reliable options, says AARP, Citizens Utility Board

AT&T-supported legislation in Illinois that would eliminate a requirement for the telco to offer landline voice service, or "plain old telephone service," has been met with opposition from the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) and the AARP, igniting new debate on legacy services.

Senate Bill 1381, which was passed 56-2 Wednesday, would abolish the state requirement that incumbent carrier AT&T offer traditional phone service.

CUB said that the bill would set in motion a process that would eventually allow the company to send "cease to offer" notices to its 1.2 million business and residential landline customers in Illinois. Additionally, the legislation would increase phone rates for current customers by allowing AT&T to eliminate the low-cost "Consumer's Choice" local calling plans.

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"The Illinois House has an excellent opportunity to protect our most vulnerable customers and create a better plan for our telecom future," said Bryan McDaniel, CUB director of governmental affairs, in a release. "We hope the House can craft legislation that gives us greater access to reliable telecom and broadband services."

Potential dangers

Among the consumers that could be potentially harmed by SB 1381 are older residents that depend on landlines as their best connection to 911, medical monitoring services and home security systems.

AARP joined the CUB in opposition to the new bill, saying it is concerned about impact the legislation would have to ensure that consumers could get affordable and reliable landline phone service in the state.

"The passage yesterday of Senate Bill 1381 in the Upper Chamber of the General Assembly spells bad news for over 1 million Illinois consumers—including older residents, small businesses, working families, individuals dealing with health issues that require constant monitoring, and residents of rural areas—as it threatens the availability of reliable landline telephone services, it could deprive vulnerable consumers of critical connections to emergency services, such as 911 and medical monitoring devices, and opens the door to further utility rate increases in our state,” said Ryan Gruenenfelder, Illinois director of advocacy for the AARP.

The AARP and CUB concerns about preserving landline are not falling on deaf ears at the FCC.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn cited similar concerns when the regulator issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on copper retirement during its April monthly meeting.

“At the end of the day, these transitions are either about replacing electronics on either end of a wire, or replacing that wire with fiber or other technologies,” Clyburn said. “But those infrastructure changes promise to fundamentally alter the very nature of the service offered to consumers. This is exactly why we must ensure that consumers’ concerns and needs are given credence during this process of retiring copper or discontinuing legacy services.”

Paul La Schiazza, AT&T Illinois president, said in a statement to FierceTelecom that the proposal to modernize Illinois telecom law isn’t a sign that the service provider going to abandon its landline voice customers.

“There is small percentage of customers who still have older technology in Illinois” and “they should know that AT&T values them as our customers and we want to keep them,” La Schiazza said. “That’s why this simple policy change allows AT&T to continue improving the technology customers use for voice calling service from old service to today’s technology – both wireless service and modern landlines.” 

Next-gen disagreements

According to the CUB, the passing of this law follows what it says is a national business model for AT&T, which has made about $58 billion in profits over the last five years.

The service provider has made a push in recent years to drive customers to services that the organization says are better for the telco’s profit margins, but tend to be less reliable, such as wireless and VoIP that rely on having a capable broadband connection.

La Schiazza disagrees with CUB's assessment and says that AT&T's next-generation wireline VoIP and wireless are more cost effective than traditional POTS services. 

"Any claim implying that home phone service from AT&T is going away is absolutely false," La Schiazza said. "Home phone service is getting better. That is why about 90 percent of households in AT&T territory already moved to modern wired and wireless services. They are generally cheaper and they are reliable for consumers."

But the new legislation could also potentially do harm to consumers that don’t own a POTS connection. CUB says that the bill does not include provisions that would require AT&T to conduct network upgrades.

Additionally, the bill would transfer the authority to protect phone customers from Illinois to the FCC, meaning Illinois would lose the leverage to influence AT&T to improve broadband access and speed.

For its part, AT&T said that passing this new law AT&T not only protects consumers using legacy landlines, but will also create incentives for the telco to invest in new network infrastructure throughout the state. 

"19 of 21 states where AT&T is the phone provider already passed modern communications laws to attract more investment in modern wired and wireless networks," La Schiazza said. "Illinois has fallen behind, but it can catch up this year.”

This article was updated on May 26 with additional information from AT&T.