AT&T wants off the hook for California landline phone service

AT&T is asking the California Public Utility Commission (PUC) to relieve it of its obligation to be the Carrier of Last Resort in certain areas of California. In other words, AT&T doesn’t want to be required to provide copper-based landline services anymore.

An AT&T spokesperson told Fierce Wireless, “We are asking that California join the other 20 states where we operate and let us transition from outdated technologies such as copper, which less than 7% of households we serve in California use, to more modern services like fiber or wireless. As we have pursued regulatory modernization for more than a decade in other states, none of our traditional landline customers have lost service as a result.”

Although AT&T is willing to help customers who don’t have other options, it doesn’t want the Carrier of Last Resort (COLR) designation in many places in California, anymore. COLR is a telecommunications service provider that stands ready to provide basic telephone service to anyone who requests it. Basic service includes nine service elements such as Lifeline rates for eligible customers, free access to 9-1-1 and directory and operator services.

AT&T is the largest COLR in California. And it is proposing to withdraw as the COLR in a long list of locations, without a new carrier being designated as a COLR replacement.

AT&T’s argument

In its petition filed in March 2023, AT&T argues that it is “investing enormous sums in California to deploy high-capacity, state-of-the-art broadband technologies – both wired and wireless.” And it says that to accelerate this transition from old technologies to new, it “seeks tailored relief from its outdated COLR obligation, which effectively mandates AT&T California to maintain a copper-based network throughout its service territory.”

The company says it is not seeking total COLR relief but will still provide basic service for those customers who lack an alternative.

The AT&T spokesperson said, “All of our customers will have access to voice service, and importantly 911. In California, 99.7 percent of consumers within our service territory have at least three facilities-based alternative options for voice service."

Citizen comments

The California PUC is currently holding community engagement hearings to get input about AT&T’s proposal and it’s also taking written comments.

Many of the citizen comments filed in the case are similar. For instance, a woman named Helen Jacobs writes, “I am a 74-year-old woman who lives in a rural area in Northern California. The landlines are crucial to our safety there. Cell phone service is inconsistent and does not reach many homes. When there are power outages, as with the most recent storms, the landline is the only way people can access emergency services and or stay in contact with family and neighbors.”

Jane de'Zell writes, “I have had to call 911 - EMS on my landline for a medical emergency when my husband had a stroke in the middle of the night. We have very poor cell phone service at our home. We do not have an any other way to get emergency help. (medical, wildfire, etc.)”

What happens next?

An administrative law judge assigned to the proceedings is scheduled to issue a proposed decision in the case for consideration by the CPUC within a year.

If the PUC approves AT&T’s proposal, then no COLR would be required to provide basic service in the areas in which AT&T is the COLR. This does not necessarily mean that no carriers would provide service in the areas — only that they would not be required to do so. It’s also possible another carrier could volunteer to become the COLR. Or, the PUC might deny AT&T’s proposal.