AT&T must keep providing landline service, regulator rules

A massively unpopular proposal by AT&T to scrap landline service for most of the Bay Area and much of California was shut down Thursday by the California Public Utilities Commission.

The Utility Reform Network estimated that hundreds of thousands of households in the Bay Area and millions around California would have lost landline service if the commission had approved AT&T’s proposal.

The commission voted on whether to adopt a decision last month by an administrative law judge to deny the telecommunications giant’s plan. Judge Thomas Glegola excoriated the telecommunications giant for making “flawed and erroneous assertions regarding the law and regulatory policy,” and said no alternative landline provider exists to take AT&T’s place. Services the utility claimed could replace landlines, including internet-based phone service and cell service, could not do the job, either, Glegola wrote.

Commissioners voted unanimously to reject AT&T’s proposal.

AT&T, which is backing proposed legislation that would let it pull out of some landline services, said, “We want to keep our customers connected and help them upgrade to modern technology.”

The company’s plan to stop being the designated “carrier of last resort,” requiring it to provide phone service to anyone wanting it in its service area, drew furious opposition from thousands of residents all over California voicing their concerns in comments to the commission. Governments including Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties attacked the proposal, along with 11 members of the U.S. Congress including four from the Bay Area.

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Critics said AT&T’s proposal would have stripped many older people and rural residents of a communications lifeline in cases of a natural disasters like fires and floods, power outages or emergency health crises. Internet and cell phone services are unreliable in many rural areas, and wildfires in recent years have shown that internet and cell phone services frequently go down because of damaged infrastructure and power loss.

San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller, addressing the commission Thursday in a public comment period before the vote, said residents, especially during power outages, rely on the carrier-of-last-resort obligations “to be able to reach out and ask for help.”

AT&T applied to the commission in March 2023 to exit as carrier of last resort. The telecommunications giant told this news organization in February that fewer than 7% of households in its territory use traditional landlines, “and a great number of those households also have alternatives available where they live.” In its proposal to the utilities commission, AT&T claimed its landline services were “fast becoming a historical curiosity” and serve no “valid public purpose.”

Bay Area members of Congress Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee, Anna Eshoo and Mark DeSaulnier joined 11 other California U.S. representatives in telling the commission in a Feb. 20 letter that the proposal threatened public safety “in an area plagued by earthquakes, severe storms, floods, and fires, and that has a geography that often disrupts cellular service for days, if not weeks, at a time.”

This week, Santa Clara County’s Office of the County Executive took aim at AT&T’s plan, with county executive James Williams pointing out that many county residents “live in areas where mobile phone and internet service is non-existent or spotty, and rely on landline telephone services, especially in an emergency.”

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San Mateo County officials earlier attacked the utility’s claim that cell phone and internet-phone service can replace landlines does not hold up, arguing that power outages and disaster-damaged infrastructure have shown those technologies to be unreliable.

Santa Cruz County supervisors also criticized the plan, including Manu Koenig, who reported at a February county meeting that he had heard from “people who are frankly terrified at the idea of these lines going away and rightfully so.”

AT&T became carrier of last resort thanks to its previous monopoly status and state law requiring voice communications for all who want them.

 

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