At its heart, the debate over the so-called AT&T bill boils down to this:
How will Kentucky decide whether cell or Internet telephone service is sufficiently reliable and affordable to relieve major carriers of the obligation to provide basic land-line service?
If the House follows the Senate and passes Senate Bill 99 virtually as AT&T wrote it, then policymakers will have outsourced that decision to AT&T and its competitors.
If the House takes a more public-spirited approach and passes the bill with the amendments attached by Rep. Larry Clark, D-Louisville, it will maintain some protections for consumers.
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Those protections would include limited oversight by the Public Service Commission, a requirement to tell consumers any limitations of the new service being offered, and an extended period for consumers to switch back to a basic service if they are not happy with their new service.
A third choice — one we endorse — is for the House to again reject this bill, choosing to wait until trials by the Federal Communications Commission and other regulatory groups determine how best to provide carriers more flexibility while protecting those who rely on basic phone service as a literal lifeline.
Clark and his colleagues in the House — notably Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, Reps. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, and Sannie Overly, D-Paris — have placed the interests of Kentucky's elderly, poor, rural and urban consumers ahead of the campaign contributions and promises of a seamless transition and new investment made by the telecommunications firms.
This is the third session that major Kentucky carriers AT&T, Cincinnati Bell and Windstream have pushed a bill to remove the legal obligation they now have to provide basic land-line service to every customer in their service areas.
The companies contend that this requirement ties up capital that could otherwise be invested in new digital infrastructure.
True or not, members of the General Assembly must give greater weight to the welfare of the citizens whom they represent than to calculations of return on investment of private, for-profit companies.
Tthe companies also say that cell or Internet telephone service would provide reliability similar to that of land-lines, but many people are not convinced.
AARP has testified that physicians reading medical data remotely find land-lines more reliable, and the manager of ADT, a leading electronic security and alarm service, outlined concerns in a letter to the House committee considering the bill. He wrote that, if passed in its original form, the bill could mean that some Kentuckians "may find themselves suddenly without reliable access to the life-safety alarm services on which they've come to rely."
Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, has testified that cell service does not always reliably provide an E-911 locator, home-security system links or fax-machine connections.
At some point in the future, possibly quite soon, technologies will exist to provide reliable, basic telephone service virtually anywhere without a land-line.
The General Assembly must not give up its responsibility to Kentucky telephone customers until there is a much wider agreement that day has come.