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COLR bill pulled from committee

A crowd in the hallway of an administrative building.
Regina Costa (far left), telecommunications policy director for TURN, at a CPUC public participation hearing about AT&T's proposal to be relieved of its COLR obligations in Ukiah on February 22.

A bill that would have relieved telephone companies of their legal obligation to provide essential telecommunications services at affordable prices was pulled from a key committee on Monday, meaning it is not currently on its way to a vote by the full House.

The Senate* Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications was set to hear an amended version of a proposed bill,AB 2797, at its hearing on Tuesday. The bill, had it become law, would have allowed telecommunications companies to be relieved of their COLR obligations, as long as they sent a letter to the CPUC identifying certain qualifying characteristics of the area they wished to withdraw from. These included “a census block designated as urban where 2 or more different service providers offer alternative voice services.” The company would also have to educate affected customers about the “benefits and advantages of transitioning to modern networks and services.”

Last year, AT&T asked the CPUC to allow it to bow out of its COLR obligations. In rural California, that is largely understood to mean copper landlines, which, while increasingly rare, are currently the only communications technology that functions when the power goes out. In areas that don’t get internet or cell phone service, landlines are the technology that reaches the outside world.

AT&T is the only designated COLR in much of rural California, which means it cannot legally stop providing the service until another service provider has been designated. In its application to the CPUC, AT&T argued that there are voice alternatives available to its customers, very few of whom use landlines anymore anyway.

Customers objected vehemently at a series of well-attended public participation hearings in February and March, which were presided over by CPUC commissioners and administrative law judges, who were openly skeptical of AT&T’s arguments.

On May 10, Administrative Law Judge Thomas Glegola recommended the commission dismiss AT&T’s application. In a scathing 26-page proposed decision with section headings like, “AT&T’s Proposed Alternatives are not COLRs,” and “AT&T Already is Able to Modernize its Network,” he agreed with the thousands of public comments about the need to maintain landline service. “An incomplete emergency call can have devastating results,” he noted in one footnote about poor cell phone signal quality.

AB 2797, which would have made its way around the commission, was originally a short paragraph sponsored by Assembly Member Blanca Rubio, authorizing licensed harness racing associations to accept wagers on another association’s horse races. By the time Assembly Member Tina McKinnor picked it up, it was a proposal for a new section in the Public Utilities Code.

Regina Costa is the telecommunications policy director for TURN, The Utility Reform Network, which fought vigorously against AT&T’s proposal. She is confident the successful effort to hold AT&T to its obligations as COLR was due in part to “the people of Mendocino County and Humboldt County, people who drove and waited for hours to give public testimony on the problems with AT&T’s proposals. What you guys did made a massive difference.”

The fight for quality service in rural California isn’t over, though. One common complaint is that AT&T doesn’t maintain its network to a high standard. Costa says the CPUC is now looking “very closely” at a report on service quality issues. “Part of that report discusses what AT&T admitted, which is that it doesn’t maintain its network because it doesn’t have staff,” she said. “Well, they made the decision to reduce their staff.” She says the commission is now considering if there is a way to force the utility to increase its personnel. “Most of the time, even when the lines are horrible, if they could still at least work, you've got something,” she observed.

Part of the problem is that rural California is not always recognized as rural. One of the census blocks that could be designated urban, and therefore would have been eligible for losing COLR service if its telecommunications provider sent a letter to the CPUC, is Humboldt County’s Fortuna, which is subject to many of the disasters that cause power and internet to go down.

It’s not just fires and rock slides and massive rainstorms. “A lot of things happen in our state,” Costa noted. “Go a little bit north and you’re at the Mendocino Triple Junction. You know, anybody who thinks that, oh well, Fortune is urban, so it really doesn't matter if they have landlines, doesn’t pay attention to earthquakes. There are so many huge earthquakes in Humboldt County that affect Fortuna, Eureka and other places. Who in their right mind is going to go, yeah, we can just eliminate the only service that works during a power outage that lasts three or four days.”

AT&T has succeeded in getting relief from COLR obligations in many other states, including Illinois. Communications lawyer and legal blogger Tony Veach wrote in October that AT&T Illinois has been ordered to pay a $23 million penalty for bribing Illinois Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan, “for help passing legislation eliminating carrier of last resort obligations. The payments were for “special project” consulting work that never occurred.” A year after the successful effort, AT&T stopped offering Lifeline, a discount landline service that’s also available from cell phone providers — in areas with a cell signal.

A similar proposal was rejected in Utah last year, which Costa finds heartening.

And, while she thinks it would be difficult to get the legislature to pass a bill similar to the one that vanished from Tuesday’s committee agenda, she warned against another industry-sponsored attempt at what she calls ‘gut and amend.’

“I think the fact that it got pulled from today's hearing is very important,” she emphasized. But she warned that the effort could still be revived in some form, saying, “Don't completely forget about this zombie bill.”

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the bill was on its way to an Assembly Committee.

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.