FRANKFORT — A Senate panel overwhelmingly approved a controversial bill Monday night that opponents said would weaken oversight and erode the quality of telephone service in Kentucky.
But proponents of Senate Bill 88, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, said it was key to increasing the state's access to high-speed Internet. They stressed that it would not spell the end of land-line phone service in Kentucky.
The Senate Economic Development, Tourism and Labor Committee voted 9-1 to send the bill to the full Republican-controlled Senate for consideration. Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, cast the only "no" vote.
The bill faces an uphill battle in the Democratic-controlled House.
House Tourism, Development and Energy chairman Keith Hall, D-Phelps, said he has "a lot of concerns" about how the bill would affect rural Kentucky. He said the legislation probably would be assigned to his committee.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said that despite tweaks to the bill he is concerned about the quality of and access to phone service in rural areas.
Hornback, who sponsored similar legislation last year but withdrew it, told the Senate panel Monday that "not one person will lose telephone service" if his bill becomes law.
He said people in rural areas deserve the same access to broad-band technology as residents in metro areas.
"No matter where you live in Kentucky, technology is changing our lives," he said.
Proponents of the bill said Kentucky needs to invest more money in broadband Internet services, which can be a key component of economic development in rural Kentucky. They say traditional phone companies can't invest in high-speed Internet if they have to maintain land lines in unprofitable areas.
Hornback said the chief complaint of his rural constituents was lack of access to high-speed Internet. States that have adopted similar legislation have seen more private investment in high-speed Internet infrastructure, he said
The senator said he would never introduce legislation that would allow a phone company to take away the land line of his 85-year-old father, who lives in rural Shelby County, or of any other rural resident.
Hornback said his bill has new provisions that should alleviate concerns of community groups that note elderly and poor people depend on land-line service in many parts of Kentucky where wireless service is often spotty.
The bill has a "carve-out" to protect rural areas with fewer than 5,000 land lines from being disconnected. Hornback said major phone carriers would not be able to remove basic service from those areas unless another provider offered a similar service.
In areas with more than 5,000 land lines, major phone carriers such as AT&T, Windstream and Cincinnati Bell no longer would have to provide basic phone services for new customers.
State law requires phone companies to provide basic land-line service as the "carriers of last resort" for households throughout their territories. It also requires the Kentucky Public Service Commission to investigate and resolve consumer complaints.
Patrick Turner, an AT&T attorney from South Carolina, said the company was planning to spend $14 billion across the nation to upgrade its Internet service.
AT&T would not want to leave its land-line customers because the company wants to increase its Internet service to them, he said.
Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said the bill would allow carriers to stop serving areas where wireless services are available, which is not the same as a land line. Many parts of rural Kentucky have wireless service that is unreliable, he said.
"Even AT&T's own website says that it is not comparable to a land-line service," FitzGerald said.
Jim Kimbrough, volunteer president of the AARP, voiced opposition to the bill, saying only 18 percent of the group's 460,000 members in Kentucky have eliminated their land-line service.
He said the legislature should ask the Public Service Commission to do a thorough study of telephone deregulation in Kentucky.