Herald-Leader Editorial

Telecom bill needs PSC study; End of basic service could isolate many

End to basic service could isolate many

March 12, 2013 

Sometimes the hardest and most honorable thing a legislator can do is nothing.

In the waning days of this session, the House is under pressure to move some form of Senate Bill 88, better known as the AT&T deregulation bill.

AT&T has deployed 23 lobbyists in this session while the company's political action committee made 75 contributions to legislative campaigns and caucus campaign committees, mostly in the $300 to $500 range, during the past five quarters.

Citizens for a Digital Future, an AT&T affiliate, is running a media campaign. And the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, with its six lobbyists, also is pushing the telecommunications deregulation bill.

In exchange for no longer having to guarantee all Kentuckians basic telephone service overseen by the Public Service Commission, AT&T is promising a bounty of new investment and an explosion of wireless capability in Kentucky.

How plausible are those promises? And are our current consumer protections as big an impediment as AT&T insists?

Consumer advocate Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council analyzed AT&T's past public statements, including praise of Kentucky in 2010 for "an environment that encourages companies to invest aggressively."

As recently as last year, AT&T said "thanks to the vision and business-friendly approach of the General Assembly, Kentucky has a strong regulatory environment for telecom infrastructure investment."

How could Kentucky's regulatory scheme have grown so onerous in just a year?

As for the windfall of investment if some Kentuckians lose their dial tone for good, FitzGerald found that AT&T already has announced that its investment in Kentucky in 2013-15 will be about the same as it was in 2007-11 — roughly 1 percent of AT&T's investment nationally in its wireless and wireline network.

"It does not appear that SB 88 will materially change AT&T's pattern or level of investment over what it has been spending in Kentucky as a percentage of total national investment in its networks in recent years," he concludes.

It's understandable that AT&T wants to shed low-paying landline customers who are content with basic service in favor of higher-paying wireless customers who want more and more services.

But that's not necessarily what's best for Kentuckians, especially those who live in rural areas, whose payments built the lines and exchanges that AT&T no longer finds sufficiently profitable.

It's notable that the deregulation proposal has not been studied by the PSC.

If the House does anything, it should commission such a study. Otherwise, the honorable thing to do with SB 88 is nothing but allow it to die.

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