Connecticut is the latest battleground which pits consumer groups against a large phone company over the future of phone service.
AT&T claims three bills now before the state legislature are needed to reflect the new competitive marketplace in the telecom sector – and will lead to improved customer service.
On the other hand, the consumer advocates say the proposals, which previously have been twice defeated by the legislature, would lead to no state oversight of local telephone service and could end the concept of universal service. Phone companies would be able to quickly end landline service in unprofitable markets, such as remote areas of the state, the consumer advocates further claim.
The proposals, state consumer advocates also claim, came from model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national pro-business organization.
"This is part of a national strategy by ALEC to advance a pro-corporate agenda at the expense of consumers," James Browning, regional director of state operations for Common Cause, said in a statement carried by TechZone360. "We've seen the destructive impact these measures have had in other states. AT&T should not be allowed to get away with it here in Connecticut."
“Connecticut consumers face significant rate increases and slashed services if AT&T have their way in Hartford,” the Connecticut Citizen Action Group claims in a recent report. “House Bills 6402, 6401 and Senate Bill 888 are destructive to consumers, taxpayers, and the environment. These three bills create the potential for construction of cell towers and other telecommunications equipment in protected state lands, eviscerate public oversight and auditing of telephone companies, and grant telecommunication companies the ability to withdraw telephone services that would leave seniors, rural residents, and businesses without service.”
CCAG also claims the bills, if approved, would lead to: higher rates for simpler landline services and higher rates for advanced options such as caller ID; phone companies would be able to eliminate phone service with just 30 days of consumer notice; and there would be less oversight of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology.
States like California, Iowa and Wisconsin passed similar deregulation bills recently, and consumers have seen their rates jump by as much as 50 percent in the past two years, CCAG claims. But Maine and Delaware saw their telecom prices go down by keeping regulations in place, CCAG adds.
Currently, there are 1.34 million residents in Connecticut who use landlines instead of cell phones.
“Those 1.34 million users of landlines in Connecticut would be devastated if AT&T were to pull service with little more than a months notice. Seniors, rural residents, and consumers would be left stranded with no recourse and no guarantee service,” CCAG said.
CCAG and other pro-consumer groups have formed a coalition, called “Don't Hang Up on Connecticut” to block the three bills supported by AT&T.
Further questions about the bills come from the AARP, which is concerned how they will impact senior citizens in Connecticut.
“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,” the AARP said, according to a report from The Connecticut Watchdog.
Chuck Coursey, an AT&T spokesman, defended the three bills, adding they were written by legislators who are on the General Assembly's Energy & Technology Committee.
"The fact is, modernizing our telecom rules this year will help encourage private investment, job growth and consumer choice at a time when Connecticut needs it most," Coursey said in a statement carried by TechZone360.
"The arguments by opponents of HB 6402 have been shown to be without merit so now they're resorting to desperate measures and innuendo," Coursey added in a statement to The Hartford Courant newspaper.
AT&T explains that state regulations now in place were enacted some 60 years ago, when there was no competition in the telecom sector, John Emra, an AT&T regional vice president, was quoted as saying by The Connecticut Watchdog. Now, half of the households in Connecticut get telephone service from cable companies.
“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 the Connecticut legislature. “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.”
“This sustains an unlevel playing field given that our competitors are free to discontinue their offerings based solely on business considerations,” he added in the testimony. “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.”
In addition, State Rep. Lonnie Reed (D-Branford), chairwoman of the legislature's Energy and Technology committee, said that the committee “updated the bill so that phone companies couldn't drop landline service or have carte blanche to pull other services,” The Courant reported.
Edited by Jamie Epstein