Preserve basic phone service

For most of us today, it's hard to imagine a world in which a telecommunication device only allowed people to talk to each other.

It's equally hard for many to imagine a monthly telephone bill in the lower double digits.

Yet that was the almost-universal reality not so long ago and remains the reality for a significant minority of Kentuckians. For that minority, the most basic and affordable telephone service is what allows them to stay in touch with family and friends, contact medical and other service providers and call for help in an emergency.

At least for now.

Senate Bill 135 has the potential to change all that. Under it that minority — largely poor and often isolated either in remote rural locations or urban silos — could be forced to make a choice between joining the rest of us in paying more for an array of services tied to our phones or simply going without any service.

As with most things related to the fast-changing field of telecommunications, the details are almost mind-numbingly complex but here's a quick explanation of how we got to this point.

For a long time, large telecom companies were regulated by the Public Service Commission with this basic deal: Your rates are subject to review and approval by the PSC and you're allowed a certain return on your investment but in exchange, you must provide basic service to every customer who wants it in your service area.

In 2006, large telecom companies championed a bill in Kentucky that became law. Under it, a company could opt out of rate regulation by the PSC, leaving it free to flourish or fail in a competitive world.

However, the requirement to be what's called the "carrier of last resort" in a coverage area remained, meaning a company still has to offer the most basic telephone service — one voice line, directory and operator assistance, and access to 911 for now less than $20 a month even after recent rate hikes — to any customer who wants it.

Fast forward to 2012 and the big telecom companies are back with SB 135. The bill gives the companies that had opted out of regulation the right to drop "last resort" customers if there are two or more options for voice communication.

However, it also included a "sunset" provision that allowed them to drop those customers after a set date regardless of other service. A substitute provision was in the works that would remove the sunset provision, which would make the bill less offensive, but still troublesome.

Voice service can be provided several ways, including through wireless networks and over Internet connections. In addition to the fact that these will almost certainly cost much more than basic service, they also may not include things like directory assistance, operator services and the same quality of 911 access.

There's no provision in the bill for assuring that a customer would have the same quality of service, much less for a comparable price. In addition, the bill doesn't address what happens when one supplier drops out of a market.

It's no wonder consumer organizations like the AARP and the Kentucky Resources Council have voiced opposition to this measure.

Telecom companies are for-profit businesses that answer to shareholders; it is the job of management to maximize profits and seek a regulatory environment that allows them to do just that.

The issue is whether the legislature, which answers — or should — to the citizens will protect their interests by maintaining a regulatory environment that assures access to basic, affordable telephone service.