Citizens, law enforcement fear AT&T proposal could end landline service in rural areas
With storms and power outages this week, many people in rural parts of the county are depending on landlines to communicate. But if the state Public Utilities Commission approves an application by AT&T to step away from its obligations as a carrier of last resort, an estimated 580,000 customers all over California could lose their landlines.
“The carrier of last resort is an obligation of a local telephone company like AT&T or Frontier, to serve everyone in its territory; to charge them the same price; to maintain the service; and to do it without discriminating against anyone,” said Regina Costa, telecommunications policy director at The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, a ratepayer advocacy group. She told Lisa Music of KMUD that AT&T’s request to be released from its legal obligation to provide landlines would leave rural Californians in the lurch. “If there could be another carrier of last resort, they could get permission to withdraw, but the fact is, there aren't any,” she said. “AT&T claims that, for instance, a cell phone company could step in and serve, because theoretically they’re authorized to serve an entire area. But the reality is that there are many areas of the state where cell phone service doesn’t work. So they can’t serve as a carrier of last resort.”
Robert Matson knows very well what it’s like to switch from a landline to a cell phone in rural Mendocino County. He’s the chief of the volunteer fire department in Elk and the owner of the Elk Garage, which offers mechanic and towing services. Last year, he let AT&T talk him into giving up his landline for about six months.
“What happened when we did get our cell phones activated was, our customers started saying, what’s wrong with your phones?” he recalled. “We can’t through to you.” He estimated that, “Fifty percent of time, maybe, they would do what they were supposed to do and ring in to the office. The other 50% of the time, it either went to voicemail or it got dropped.” He added that the receptionist for the business checked the voicemail every ten minutes to see if she needed to call anyone back.
(Incidentally, this interview was conducted on cell phones during a rainstorm, and the call dropped every few minutes.)
If AT&T’s petition is approved, the company might no longer be obliged to provide landlines to lightly populated areas like Elk, where most people technically have access to some kind of telecommunications infrastructure. Tracy Rhine is a senior policy advocate with RCRC, the Rural County Representatives of California. She told Lisa Music with KMUD that AT&T relies heavily on census blocks to make its determinations about population. “Where they’re asking for relief, and therefore not being obligated to provide service to these 580,000 people, are areas that as defined in their petition, would be census blocks where 50% of the customers have an alternative provider such as wireless,” she said. “By definition, that means (that in) 50% of that census block, those customers may not have access to any other telecommunication.”
Matson knows exactly where those areas are. As the fire chief, he notes that many people in Elk rely on landlines to get in touch with emergency services. “Definitely,” he said. “Because, depending on where you are in the Elk area, you may have cell coverage, or you may not. And it’s not only Elk. Our tow trucks service the entire coast, from the Navarro River to Stewarts Point in Sonoma County. We operate by cell phones on our tow trucks, and we know where all the sweet spots are. And I have to tell you, there are a lot of dead areas.”
Sheriff Matt Kendall agrees. During another cell phone interview that was punctuated by dropped calls until he made it to a landline, he cited safety concerns. “911, of course,” he said. “We will wind up getting phone calls to contact people when family members can’t get ahold of them. We will get welfare checks like you wouldn’t believe…The eastern side of Covelo, Round Valley, even with the new cell towers, has serious cell connectivity issues. Once you get up Mynah Road, once you get up past the Hog Farm in Laytonville, if you go up towards Haehl’s Grove on Highway 1, or get anywhere out of the town of Leggett, there’s no connectivity. This is going to put a real strain on local law enforcement, local EMS and fire, and I don’t know if we have the capacity to carry the water once that connectivity is gone.”
The CPUC is holding a few hearings around the state this month and next, including in Ukiah. Kendall reported that earlier this week, he met with a group of sheriffs from around the region, “and this was a big topic of conversation. We are all going to be weighing in, and either be there in person or provide feedback, through the association, through correspondence with the CPUC.”
The CPUC docket (case number A.23-03-003, to read public comments or make one of your own ) currently has over 1300 public comments from people all over the state, pleading with the commission not to allow AT&T to abandon their landlines. Karen Lewis, in Albion, shared a story that was typical, including spotty cell phone service at home and concerns about her ability to contact people for emergency or social purposes as she and her husband grow older. She said the bill for her landline has been “inching up,” even though it was out of service for over a month. “I don’t mind continuing to pay it, because it’s our safety net,” she said. “I even had a neighbor come to use the landline when her car wouldn’t start, because she didn’t have any cell service. So that’s the kind of situation where knowing that there’s a reliable landline, it’s actually not just for our benefit but for neighbors to know who’s got communication.”
There will be two CPUC hearings about AT&T’s proposal in the Board of Supervisors chambers in Ukiah on February 22, one at 2pm and another at 6pm. “The public participation hearings are vitally important,” said Regina Costa, of TURN. “The Commission does pay attention to that.”
Thanks to Lisa Music of KMUD news for sharing the audio of her interviews with Regina Costa, of TURN, and Tracy Rhine, of RCRC.