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AT&T Deregulation Bill Waits To Be Heard In State House And Senate

Kentucky state Capitol
Kentucky state Capitol

A bill that would remove some regulations from major phone companies in Kentucky may have some stumbling blocks in the state House, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said on Wednesday.

Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, said House Democrats aren’t united behind the bill.

“I think the more people think about that bill, the more concerned they get about that bill,” Stumbo said in a press conference before the House convened. “If it passes it’ll pass with a Republican vote from the Republican caucus. I don’t think the Democratic caucus will pass it.”

The bill would strip major telephone service providers like AT&T, Windstream and Cincinnati Bell of a requirement to offer basic telephone service in markets of more than 15,000 people. The basic plans include local calls, 911 and operator service.

Service providers say not having to maintain landlines will allow them to invest in developing newer technologies like the wireless network.

A Senate committee approved the bill on Wednesday. Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, said he’s hopeful the bill will pass.

AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris has been adamant in his claim that phone service for rural landline owners will not be affected.

“The bill provides a guarantee for voice service,” Harris said during a committee hearing Wednesday. “And if the wireless home phone option doesn’t provide the functionality, it doesn’t work. Then absolutely, there’s nothing in this bill that keeps us from putting lines and we would have to put lines to this location.”

That claim has been questioned because of a provision in the bill dealing with rural residents who move to a new residence. The language in the bill requires providers to offer voice service for customers who move to a residence where the “utility has not installed landline facilities to provide basic local exchange service.” Then the bill later says “the modifying utility is not obligated to offer basic local exchange service at the location.”

At issue is whether AT&T would have to provide basic local service at residences where BellSouth originally installed the lines. AT&T acquired the lines from BellSouth in 2006.

Kentucky Resources Council director Tom FitzGerald said the language would allow AT&T to stop providing landline service at those residences and start moving customers onto wireless or voice over IP technology; technologies which he says are not reliable enough.

“That language is very clear, it really limits their obligation,” Fitzgerald said. “[The Kentucky Resources Council] gave them language that is much more straightforward and just says if the landline is there you’ve got to replace it with basic local service.”

Harris couldn’t be reached for comment after the committee hearing. AT&T spokesman Daniel Hayes said the company would still have the obligation to offer basic service to those residences because AT&T inherited BellSouth’s legal obligations to do so.

“AT&T is obligated and still the same legal entity and so the same obligations that were Bell South’s are AT&T’s,” Hayes said.

During the meeting, Cadiz Republican Sen. Stan Humphries expressed worry that rural residents might end up relying on AT&T’s wireless service, which he said isn’t always reliable in his district. Humphries voted against the bill during the last two legislative sessions.

Today Humphries asked Harris who would determine when service was reliable enough.

Harris replied that AT&T has obligation to provide service, however he said reliability “would be a matter for the courts to decide.” He continued by saying “as a practical matter we’re going to make sure we provide that customer service.”

Humphries voted in favor of the bill on Wednesday, but said he wanted to make sure adequate service would be provided before he voted on the floor.

“So somewhere in there needs to be explained specifically that communication is going to be provided—talking to the lawyers or not—inside the house sufficient coverage, that you can leave your loved one there and you can feel safe about leaving them alone,” Humphries said during the hearing.

This is the fourth year that the bill has been introduced in the General Assembly. Last year the bill passed the Senate but failed in the House.

The bill was approved by a House committee last week.