“Don’t let them drop us!” Landline users protest AT&T copper retirement plan

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Written By Sedoso Feb

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AT&T’s application to end its landline phone obligations in California is drawing protest from residents as state officials consider whether to let AT&T off the hook.

AT&T filed an application to end its Carrier of Last Resort (COLR) obligation in March 2023. The first of several public hearings on the application is being held today by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which is considering AT&T’s request. An evidentiary hearing has been scheduled for April, and a proposed decision is expected in September.

AT&T has said it won’t cut off phone service immediately, but ending the COLR obligation would make it easier for AT&T to drop its phone lines later on. AT&T’s application said it would provide basic phone service in all areas for at least six months and indefinitely in areas without any alternative voice service.

“If approved by the CPUC, over 580,000 affected AT&T customers would be left with fewer options in terms of choice, quality, and affordability,” warns the Rural County Representatives of California. “Alternative services, such as VoIP and wireless, have no obligation to serve a customer or to provide equivalent services to AT&T landline customers, including no obligation to provide reliable access to 911 or Lifeline program discounts.”

“Please don’t let them drop us!”

Recent comments from residents stressed the importance of landlines for emergency services. Residents also described problems with wireless service that could serve as the only replacement for copper networks in areas that AT&T hasn’t deemed profitable enough for fiber lines.

“We live in the country with no cell service so the landline we have is the only way we can get help in an emergency,” a resident of Moss Landing wrote today. “There are only 5 homes on our part of the line. I don’t see any other company volunteering to pick up our service after we have heard AT&T tell us so many times we would be the very last to get things fixed due to the little amount of homes. Please don’t let them drop us!”

The docket has received over 2,100 comments in the past three weeks and about 2,300 overall that are overwhelmingly opposed to AT&T’s plan. There are another 600 comments on a separate docket for a related AT&T application.

Even some residents who have access to cable companies, which generally offer VoIP service, aren’t ready to give up their old copper landlines.

“Internet over cable has gotten more reliable, but not so reliable that I’m willing to stake my lifeline telecommunication service on it,” a resident of Hayward wrote yesterday. “In fact, I keep DSL service on my POTS [Plain Old Telephone Service] line as a backup to our cable Internet service… Emergency 911 service over cell phones still doesn’t work. The last time I tried to report a grass fire adjacent to a Cal State University, the dispatcher didn’t know what city I was calling from.”

Carrier of last resort must provide service to anyone

AT&T recently filed an objection to how opponents are describing its phone service plans. An AT&T filing on January 16 disputed claims that low-income households could see their bills double and that “AT&T has stated that it intends to shut down its telephone network.”

“AT&T California will continue to offer basic telephone service in all of its service area unless and until it separately obtains all necessary permission to stop, so no customer will lose service if the Commission approves AT&T California’s application,” AT&T said.

According to AT&T’s application, the company has to complete the Section 214 discontinuance process run by the Federal Communications Commission to discontinue service in any given area fully.

CPUC says in a summary of the situation that “AT&T is the designated COLR in many parts of the state and is the largest COLR in California.” This means “the company must provide traditional landline telephone service to any potential customer in that service territory. AT&T is proposing to withdraw as the COLR in your area without a new carrier being designated as a COLR.”

“If AT&T’s proposal were accepted as set forth in its application, then no COLR would be required to provide basic service in your area,” the state agency said. “This does not necessarily mean that no carriers would, in fact, provide service in your area—only that they would not be required to do so. Other outcomes are possible, such as another carrier besides AT&T volunteering to become the COLR in your area, or the CPUC denying AT&T’s proposal.”

AT&T was deregulated in many states

There are 21 states in AT&T’s wireline service territory. AT&T’s California application said it has already received at least some relief from carrier-of-last-resort obligations in the other 20 states, namely Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

In addition to its COLR application, AT&T has asked California to let it give up its designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC). The ETC designation allows AT&T to receive money from the US government’s Universal Service Fund, including the federal Lifeline program. AT&T would still be eligible for California’s state Lifeline program.

“By relinquishing its ETC designation, AT&T will no longer be eligible to receive federal support to provide Lifeline, which could potentially affect all current AT&T Lifeline customers… For a household receiving federal Lifeline from AT&T, the bill could increase by $5.25 per month for voice-only service, or $9.25 per month for bundled or Internet service,” the CPUC said. “In addition to these amounts, a household on Tribal lands receiving federal Lifeline from AT&T could experience an additional $25 per month bill increase.”

AT&T complains that it has to maintain two networks

To get its application approved, “AT&T must demonstrate that another ETC provider can provide universal support in the areas where AT&T wishes to surrender its ETC designation,” the CPUC said.

AT&T argued in its application that it is seeking only “modest regulatory reforms” to provide “tailored relief from its outdated COLR obligation.” The COLR obligation requires AT&T “to wastefully operate and maintain two duplicative networks: one, an antiquated, narrowband network with an ever-dwindling base of subscribers, and the other, a forward-looking, fiber and wireless broadband network,” the company said.

AT&T complained that Comcast, Charter, Cox, Verizon, and T-Mobile do not face the same obligation. Because of the COLR requirement, “AT&T California alone must continue to fulfill every request to extend an outdated voice-centric network to anyone, anywhere within its footprint, even in cases where the customer has access to a modern alternative,” AT&T said.

AT&T said the requested relief will allow it to “redeploy resources from yesterday’s voice-centric technologies and hasten its ability to roll out broadband to more Californians.”

“Significantly, AT&T California is not seeking total COLR relief at this time: for the few customers who currently lack an alternative to AT&T California’s basic voice service, AT&T California would continue offering voice service on the same terms as before until an alternative becomes available,” the application said.

AT&T: Wireless is good enough

While some landline users don’t consider the alternatives to be good enough, AT&T argues that wireless is a suitable alternative to copper landlines. AT&T said that mobile service is “highly reliable” and now offers “substantially better quality than earlier versions.”

“Although some might cling to the belief that POTS offers still better call quality, consumers have reached the opposite view: as noted, the overwhelming majority primarily use mobile wireless service for their voice calls,” AT&T’s application said.

In a protest of AT&T’s application, the CPUC’s Public Advocates Office disputed AT&T’s claims about wireless reliability. “For scores of census blocks throughout AT&T’s POTS service territory, the only identified alternative is a wireless service provider,” the Public Advocates Office said. “Wireless providers’ networks can often have gaps in coverage over their service area. All three wireless carriers identified in AT&T’s list of alternatives include disclaimers indicating that actual coverage may vary and is subject to change.”

Noting that “AT&T is the largest, and often the only, POTS provider” in various areas, the protest said that “Californians living in census blocks where AT&T has only identified a wireless alternative to POTS service are likely to experience a loss of guaranteed, reliable voice service.”

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