Herald-Leader Editorial

Don't pull plug on basic phone service

February 18, 2014 

AT&T has a perfectly good reason for wanting the changes proposed in Senate Bill 99: to make more money.

That's fine for AT&T and its stockholders. Anyone who has paid a cellphone bill knows it offers more profit upside than a single telephone line for about $20 a month.

But the proposed changes are not fine for the thousands of Kentuckians — many of them old and poor — who rely on basic, stand-alone land-line service.

They need that inexpensive connection to their communities, caregivers and emergency services. And they deserve the security of knowing the Public Service Commission has the authority to assure the quality and reliability of that service.

Currently AT&T must provide simple, plain-vanilla telephone service to every customer in its service areas who requests and pays for it.

Under this bill, which easily passed the state Senate, AT&T is seeking an end to that obligation in areas where it has more than 15,000 customers and for new customers everywhere. AT&T would choose whether to supply service with a traditional wire to your house, a wireless network or Internet-based technology.

The bill also gives customers who are sold another type of service only 30 days to notify the company — in writing — if they want to switch back to basic service.

The PSC would have no authority over the quality or reliability of service for the customers who switch or for those in the larger areas.

AT&T's land-line network was built at the expense of customers in the decades it was a protected monopoly with a guaranteed profit.

As telecommunications services exploded to include cellphones that can surf the Internet and so much more, the traditional monopolies wanted to break loose of regulation.

In 2006, the General Assembly deregulated many of their services but stipulated that they must continue to provide basic, stand-alone service under PSC oversight.

They've been chafing at that requirement for a while.

This year's bill is improved from last year's failed version, which would have affected customers in rural areas more. But this year's bill is still short of significant protections.

The 30-day window to return to basic service is simply too short to tell whether the new service is reliable, affordable and satisfactory. It should be at least 90 days, and customers should be allowed to notify the company by telephone if they want to change back.

It's also critical to maintain PSC oversight. AT&T insists this isn't necessary, but its own wireless-customer agreement, which includes this language, suggests otherwise: "We do not guarantee you uninterrupted service or coverage. We cannot assure you that if you place a 911 call you will be found."

A lot of political pressure, campaign contributions and lobbying expenses are behind this bill. The House of Representatives should resist that influence and turn down this attempt to remove the guarantee of affordable regulated telephone service.

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