CT Watchdog: When a land line is really a lifeline

With the catchy slogan of "Don't Hang Up On Connecticut Seniors" the AARP is leading the charge against proposed legislation that would further deregulate Connecticut's telephone market.

AT&T maintains that all it is looking for is a level playing field against its competitors in providing home telephone service.

But AARP and consumer groups see the legislation (House Bill 6402) as an attempt to cut back on the old-fashioned analog copper wire landline service, which the majority of Connecticut seniors rely on.

"What they want to do is to give up all the responsibility of being the telephone company without giving up their benefits," said John Erlingheuser, AARP's advocacy director in Connecticut.

The battle rages as Connecticut consumers are cutting their landline telephone service at a rate of 10,000 a month.

Today only about one-third of families have the traditional phone service and most of them are seniors. Another third rely only on cellular telephones while the remaining third use the Internet for their home phone service.

Erlingheuser said seniors still want the reliability of traditional phone service for their security and medical needs. He noted that in recent storms many seniors were able to use their landlines while most people who lost their electricity also lost their cellphone service and telephones, which use the Internet.

Many seniors, he said, also need landlines for medical devices that send information to their doctors.

"As society forges ahead with new technologies, we must not abandon key consumer protections in the process. Older residents have made it clear that while they embrace new technology, they continue to value their landline telephone for the safety, security and reliability it offers, especially for home security systems, medical devices and during power outages or other emergencies when battery back-up and network failures can prevent access to 911," says the AARP.

Erlingheuser says his organization is particularly concerned with three elements of the proposal:

• Allowing AT&T to stop providing any of its services with a 60-day notice to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

• Limiting the state's quality of services standards "which cover such things as responding to trouble reports and service outages."

• A halt to annual audit of AT&T's business in Connecticut in which the company reports on its investments in infrastructure and modernization.

The three, he said, will result in AT&T spending less on traditional phone system and more on its cellular and Internet-based systems.

"We are not challenging that you will have a phone with a dial tone," if the legislation is adopted, Elingheuser said, "but we question how much more it will cost and how reliable it will be."

AT&T, however, says AARP is just trying to "stir up controversy" and seniors have nothing to fear.

Many of the regulations that AT&T must follow are 60 years old and were intended to protect consumers when there was no competition, says John Emra, an AT&T regional vice president.

Today half of all Connecticut households get their home telephone service from their cable companies. There is real competition now, he said.

Emra says 10 of the 22 states where his firm once had monopolies on landlines have deregulated their phone markets without hurting consumers.

"We want to improve customer service and reduce costs in our business by streamlining and consolidating existing offerings into a more unified and enhanced customer experience," Emra testified before a General Assembly committee.

"It is critical that companies have the flexibility to remove products and services on a streamlined basis as consumer demands change instead of as old regulations dictate. While removing products and services is common for many companies in our industry and many other industries, AT&T must seek and obtain regulatory approval even though we are not even the majority provider in the marketplace," he said.

"This sustains an unlevel playing field given that our competitors are free to discontinue their offerings based solely on business considerations. Imagine a grocer having to seek regulatory approval every time she wanted to remove a food item from her shelves that customers were no longer buying. Or think what would happen to a grocer's cost if a regulatory body made her keep stocking a food item on her shelves that only a handful of people bought once a year."

Similar proposals were killed twice before in the General Assembly. AT&T hopes that this third attempt will succeed.

george@ctwatchdog.com; www.ctwatchdog.com

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