Politics & Government

Senator scraps bill that threatened basic land-line phone service

FRANKFORT — Citing "terrible" public feedback, a senator is scrapping a bill that would have further diminished state regulation of major phone carriers and allowed them to end basic land-line phone service in unprofitable areas.

Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, on Thursday said he decided to drop Senate Bill 12, referred to as "the AT&T bill," after meeting with Senate Democrats and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, to try to address their concerns.

Hornback said he blamed "misinformation" spread by the news media and the bill's opponents, including Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council. A revised version of his bill would have prohibited the phone carriers from abandoning any of their existing customers, he said, but that was largely overlooked in the criticism.

AT&T and other major carriers must be able to invest in modern telecommunications systems, including broadband and wireless, Hornback said.

"This bill is an investment in the future," Hornback said. "I'm looking five, 10, 15 years down the road. Where do we want to be in this state? Do we want to be last?"

FitzGerald, who testified against the bill Tuesday before a Senate committee, stood by his concerns.

"I don't believe that I have misstated anything about the potential consequences of allowing AT&T and the other electing utilities to end their obligation to provide stand-alone basic local exchange service on a nondiscriminatory basis," FitzGerald said. "The bill was not sound public policy, and deserved the criticism it received."

AT&T helped Hornback write SB 12 and lobbied aggressively for it in recent weeks, including the public testimony Tuesday of AT&T Kentucky president Mary Pat Regan. The company employed 32 legislative lobbyists as of this week, and it has given close to $100,000 in state political donations in the last five years.

However, Stumbo and other lawmakers raised concern about the bill's potential impact in rural communities, particularly for poor and elderly residents.

State law requires the major phone carriers 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.

SB 12 would have replaced all of that language. Hornback said a revised version of his bill would not have allowed existing customers to be dumped, it only would have let the company shift its focus in the future. Nor would it have allowed basic land-line service to be withdrawn from an area unless a competing service was available, he said.

However, critics said the bill's language did not contain the explicit protections that Hornback said it did. They said the bill would let AT&T, Windstream and Cincinnati Bell withdraw less profitable basic land-line service in rural areas, forcing residents to upgrade to more expensive service plans they don't need and can't afford.

On Wednesday, Stumbo said parts of Kentucky, including his Floyd County district, do not have reliable cell phone service.

"If you eliminate land lines in their entirety, you eliminate access in case of emergencies and for elderly people who don't have or are not accustomed to cellphones," Stumbo said, casting doubt on the bill's chances in the House.

There also was criticism about AT&T getting to write its own deregulation bill. At the Senate committee hearing Tuesday, representatives of competing telecommunications firms said they objected to a bill being crafted specifically to benefit one company.