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Battle Lines Being Drawn Over Landline Phone Service


It's happening more and more across the country; Americans are replacing landline phone service in their homes with cell phones.

It's happening so much that the telecommunications industry now estimates that about one-third of Americans have made the change. Now, the industry is responding by showing a reluctance to keep offering landline service.

In four states - Texas, North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin - phone companies have persuaded state legislators to remove a generations-old requirement to provide residential landline service. Known as the "carrier of last resort" obligation, the requirement is also under fire in six other state legislatures.

Industry lobbyists say landline service has become antiquated and expensive. But for rural states without local service providers, consumer advocates worry about the effect of eliminating the requirement, especially for more vulnerable Americans such as the elderly or those with lower incomes.

The national trend has also caught the eye of some in the U.S. Senate, where some lawmakers cite a common fear among consumer advocates. In some rural areas, Senators say, cell phone reception can be so poor that it isn't even an option.

"I have great concerns about releasing these requirements," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told RTT News. "Landlines, especially in small towns and rural areas, remain essential."

"I can't tell you how frustrated I get a lot of times when I'm traveling around Iowa and I can't get connections on my cell phone," he added. "It happens to me all the time. So unless and until there is absolute 100 percent assurance of cell phone coverage, I want to maintain the requirement."

Officials at U.S. Telecom, a D.C.-based lobbying group that represents telecommunications companies, said the petitions are being handled on a state-by-state basis by the carriers themselves. But they note that the Federal Communications Commission has recently announced its intent to offer subsidy funding for broadband service, meaning the risk will be low to consumers who prefer landlines.

"It is a question of efficient use of government subsidy funding for voices services, as the government has just made a shift in how it wants to provide support for universal service," said Anne Veigle, a spokeswoman for U.S. Telecom.

But on the other side of the issue in Washington is the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, which tracks legislation in Congress and advocates for rural phone service.

NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield says dismantling the COLR requirement would undo a governmental guarantee that stretches back for more than 100 years and was reaffirmed as recently as 1996, when Congress passed an updated telecommunications law.

"It's the whole theory behind electricity, water and sewer service, and critical infrastructure services like that," Bloomfield said. "The government has said there is a right to these services."

She added, "It's true that for carriers, the obligation is relatively expensive. They're basically saying, 'We're willing to extend our lines to that farm at the end of the road or the house on top of that mountain.' But it is a kind of a social contract that carriers have had for about 100 years. And we feel very strongly that continues to be important."

Like Harkin, Bloomfield is also worried that all states will someday succumb to a sustained push by telecommunications lobbyists and release the companies from the requirement.

"I can see it happening in virtually every state," she said. "It just depends on how receptive each state is, and who's ripe for it."

by RTTNews Staff Writer

For comments and feedback: editorial@rttnews.com

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