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Thursday, April 27, 2017 12:07 am

The end of the landline

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Legislation sponsored by AT&T could threaten access to services such as 911 and medical monitoring for low-income and rural residents in parts of Illinois served by the telecommunication giant, according to AARP Illinois, Illinois PIRG and the Citizens Utility Board (CUB).

Senate Bill 1381 and House Bill 2691 would abolish the state requirement that AT&T serve traditional landline customers, with that responsibility going to the FCC. According to a joint press release from the three consumer advocacy groups, the state “would be stripped of any meaningful oversight to protect AT&T’s 1.2 million business and residential landline customers from inferior service.” Low-cost calling plans, as currently mandated by the General Assembly, would also disappear, leaving low-income households vulnerable.

AT&T claims that customers would still have many choices once the bills pass, but, according to the press release, “a landline is still the most affordable and reliable choice for a significant number of Illinoisans.” This includes rural customers who suffer from weak cellphone signals, families on fixed incomes and seniors who require access to 911, medical alert services  and home security systems. Forcing people onto alternatives, such as wireless or computer-based phone service, could subject them to higher bills, lack of service in extended power outages, spotty reception and dropped calls, according to the Citizens Utility Board.

At a press conference April 20, Bryan McDaniel of the CUB pointed out that the bills in question apply only to AT&T service territories while Frontier, the other large telephone company in Illinois, would not be affected. “Frontier would like this bill to apply to them,” McDaniel explained, “but because Frontier serves more rural areas, AT&T doesn’t want them in their bill – it would make their argument that much tougher,” due to the prevalence of spotty phone service in those areas.

“One of AT&T’s favorite statistics is that 17 of 19 other states have already passed this bill,” said McDaniel, pointing out that this figure is meaningless because the FCC has to present its own transition plan before any of the bill’s provisions can be implemented. “Let’s see what the FCC plan looks like and then we can figure out, as a state, if that’s good enough and make changes as necessary. But let’s not sign away the state’s rights to the telecom transition prematurely.”

McDaniel said that the 1.2 million AT&T landlines currently operational in Illinois includes 600,000 business lines – a lot of them small businesses. “All the chambers of commerce have lined up in favor of this bill,” he said, but worries that small businesses are in danger of falling through the cracks, due to the tendency of chambers of commerce to favor to the needs of larger companies.

Even more than small businesses, threats to health and safety are the paramount concerns about the bills. “Without health and safety, there is no life,” McDaniels said. “We encourage consumers to contact their legislators. AT&T has a very powerful armada of lobbyists walking the halls of Springfield every day.”

The groups urged Illinoisans to visit SaveOurPhoneService.com to send messages telling legislators to oppose AT&T’s deregulation bills, Senate Bill 1381/House Bill 2691. Consumers also can call a special hotline, at 1-844-220-5552, to talk to their legislators.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com

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