The world of telecommunications has been changing, to be sure, but the public expectation that reliable, affordable, basic phone service will be available during this digital transition, should not.
Access to basic local exchange phone service is not a privilege, but is instead a right secured under state law and a promise made under "common carriage" rules.
Under the current framework, these companies thrived in a regulated environment for decades, with a guaranteed profit on their investments in the "public switched telephone network" in return for offering basic service in a nondiscriminatory manner to rural and urban, high-cost and low-cost residential customers alike.
In 2006, AT&T and others successfully lobbied the General Assembly to allow telephone companies to deregulate all services other than basic telephone service.
In requiring that access to basic telephone service continue to be regulated, the General Assembly recognized that stand-alone basic telephone service is, for many Kentuckians, an essential service.
AT&T may believe, as it told the Federal Communications Commission in 2009, that "plain-old telephone service" is a "relic of a bygone era," yet basic reliable wireline local exchange telephone service remains a lifeline for those who use it to convey medical monitoring information, for smoke and security alarms, and for voice service.
Basic local service is more than just "voice" service — it includes, by state law, reliable unlimited local exchange calling, 911 service, directory and operator assistance, and the ability to connect with other carriers.
AT&T is circulating a proposed bill that would deregulate basic local telephone services in the service areas of AT&T, Windstream and Cincinnati Bell in Kentucky. What would the bill do?
Unless you currently live in a household with fewer than 5,000 housing units in the telephone exchange, you will no longer be guaranteed access to basic local service as a stand-alone option.
For those smaller exchanges, AT&T could immediately cease providing the service if it offers an "alternative voice service." Or, it could petition the state Public Service Commission to be relieved of the obligation by meeting certain criteria regarding other providers of voice service in the area. No new houses built in the service areas would have a right to a landline offering basic phone services on a stand-alone basis.
There is nothing in the draft bill that would require AT&T to seek PSC approval prior to ending the stand-alone landline phone service in exchanges where it or another provider offers wireless alternative voice service.
In addition, there is no requirement that AT&T demonstrate that the wireless service is of comparable reliability and consistent signal quality.
Deregulating basic local phone service based on the mere existence of a wireless "alternative voice service" provider that can be an affiliate, does not assure access for all customers to voice and other basic exchange services that are functionally equivalent, competitively priced and comparable to the currently regulated landline basic telephone services.
Before an telephone company is relieved of the obligation to offer reliable stand-alone basic service under regulations that guarantee nondiscriminatory access, the PSC must be empowered to determine whether there is sufficient competition in the provision of the full array of reliable basic phone services from other carriers on a stand-alone basis. It must also ensure that it will remain available to low-and fixed-income Kentuckians and those more costly to serve because of their location.
Otherwise, these customers will not be adequately protected in a deregulated marketplace.
AT&T has asked the FCC to set a date certain where their obligation to maintain the wired public switched telephone network (referred to as the "legacy" network) and to provide such services would be eliminated. As the Internet-protocol based communications network expands, the FCC will determine, on a national level, the obligations of these incumbent telephone utilities to the customers in their service areas, and the obligations to provide wholesale access to other carriers and to allow interconnection with other carriers.
Ending the obligation in Kentucky, without an assurance that comparable services will be available in a deregulated marketplace for those who are most in need of and least able to afford such services, is not in the public's interest.
Tom FitzGerald is director of the Kentucky Resources Council, Inc., a nonprofit specializing in environmental, energy and utility matters.