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Landlines a lifeline in spotty cell zones

A crowd waits outside a door in an office building hallway.
Regina Costa, telecom policy director of TURN, The Utility Reform Network, (left, in mask), among the crowd gathering outside the Board of Supervisors chambers for the CPUF public participation hearing on AT&T's proposals.

The Board of Supervisors chambers, the overflow room, and the courtyard at the Mendocino county government campus were packed yesterday for a highly interactive public participation hearing about two proposals from AT&T.

The California Public Utilities Commission is evaluating the company’s request to relinquish its status as an eligible telecommunications carrier and to be released from its obligation to continue as the carrier of last resort, or COLR.

Administrative Law Judge Thomas Glegola and Assistant Chief Administrative Law Judge W. Anthony Colbert took testimony, along with Commissioners John Reynolds and Darcie Houck.

Commissioner Reynolds explained: “An eligible telecommunications carrier is a telephone company that operates in a specific geographic area and receives financial assistance from the Federal Universal Service Fund to provide affordable telephone service to customers at all income levels. At&T is essentially requesting to no longer operate as an E.T.C. in California.

Second, we have AT&T's request for relief from its Carrier of Last Resort obligation. A COLR is a telecommunications service provider that stands ready to provide basic telephone service, commonly landline telephone service, to any customer requesting such service within a specified geographic area. Where AT&T is the default basic telephone service provider, it must provide basic telephone service to any potential customer in that service territory.”

Yesterday’s participation hearing was one of a series, which will conclude on March 19. After evidentiary hearings, Judge Glegola will provide the commission with a proposed decision, which the five commissioners will vote on later this year.

But the crowd was not sympathetic to AT&T, particularly with national news about 70,000 cell phone customers left without service. Mendocino County Supervisor John Haschak spoke about how rural people whose cell phones are always spotty rely on landlines. “I have seen cell service coverage dropped in the times that we need to communicate most,” he testified. “During the August Complex fire, and the Redwood Complex fires, cell service went down. During the huge snowstorms that we had last winter, cell coverage went down. Landlines provide many people with their sole connection to the outside world.”

People came from all over the region to plead with the commission to reject the telecom giant’s requests. Senator Mike McGuire and Assembly member Jim Wood sent representatives to add their voices to the chorus. Michelle Vassel, tribal administrator for the Wiyot tribe in Humboldt county, approached the dais flanked by tribal council members. “Electricity goes out all the time because of storms, because of earthquakes, because of rolling blackouts,” she testified. “Because of fire concerns and wind issues…The combination of increasing costs of all of our utilities and the fact that this would increase our costs to have a service, which is the only service available, is the reason why we want you to reject both applications.”

Tedi Vriheas, the Vice President of external affairs for AT&T California, said AT&T has received COLR relief in 20 other states, and that copper landline use is down by 90%. “I want to assure you that no one is going to be left without service,” she pledged. “All of our customers will have access to voice service, and especially 9-1-1. The CPUC designated Pacific Bell, now AT&T, 25 years ago, the Carrier of Last Resort, or COLR. Today there are dozens of companies providing voice services in California. Competition is here and it is robust…California is dedicating over 8 billion dollars in federal funding to build out broadband. They are not investing in copper.”

But many people testified that AT&T is not maintaining its infrastructure. And Regina Costa, telecom policy director for TURN, The Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer advocacy organization, disputed the idea of robust competition for reliable phone service. “These guys had the advantage because they had a monopoly for many, many decades,” she said in an interview before the hearing.”And they had customer support for many decades. There was a point in time where they allowed competition for local service, but very few of those companies survived.”

The crowd booed Vriheas’ response when Judge Colbert asked her to address one of the main concerns that had come up in testimony. “Briefly, what is AT&T's specific plan if the copper infrastructure goes out of service?” he asked.

Vriheas replied, “It's my understanding that the definition of alternative service would be worked out through the evidentiary proceedings. Based on information that has been submitted.” As the assembled members of the public expressed their displeasure, Cobert called for order. He then tried again, with AT&T attorney Andy Umaña.

Umaña told the judge, “We submitted over a hundred thousand pages of evidence in this proceeding, so I'm happy to take this back to my colleagues and we can get a specific citation for you.”

Colbert thanked him, then said, “As Judge Glegola and the Commissioners have indicated, we have another hearing at six o'clock. So hopefully we can get a more specific answer by then.” Umaña agreed, and the two men thanked one another some more.

Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn got a laugh when he took the temperature in the room. “You’re not getting a lot of people saying, hey, this is a great idea,” he observed. “The only people probably happy today is PG&E because it’s got them off the front page with their rate hikes, and now everyone’s thinking, AT&T.”

Bob Matson is the volunteer fire chief in Elk and the owner of a tow truck company and service garage. He testified about his experience when he gave up his business landlines and accepted cell phones from AT&T.

“Half the time, the phones would work as they were supposed to,” he related. “But the other fifty percent of the time, the call was either dropped or it went to voicemail.” At one point, Glegola tried to remind Matson that he had used his allotted two minutes to testify, but the crowd clamored to hear his story. “We tow for the Highway Patrol and we also tow for AAA,” Matson continued; “and it's essential that these landlines work to get ahold of us.”

He finally got his political representative to get in touch with the Commission and AT&T eventually gave him back his landlines. “When the landlines got reinstated, we realized how much this had impacted our business, for seven months,” he concluded. “Don't let this happen, because these landlines are essential to us.”

The next in-person hearings will be on March 14 at 2pm and 6pm in the Indio City Hall Council Chambers.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.