Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Is You Legal Right To A Landline Phone Going Away?

You may not realize it but you have a legal right to have landline phone service at almost any address in the United States. The Goals of Universal Service, as outlined in the FCC Telecommunications Act of 1996 are to:

  • Promote the availability of quality services at just, reasonable and affordable rates for all consumers
  • Increase nationwide access to advanced telecommunications services
  • Advance the availability of such services to all consumers, including those in low income, rural, insular, and high cost areas at rates that are reasonably comparable to those charged in urban areas
  • Increase access to telecommunications and advanced services in schools, libraries and rural health care facilities
  • Provide equitable and non-discriminatory contributions from all providers of telecommunications services to the fund supporting universal service programs
Universal Service goes way back to 1913 when AT&T President Thomas Vail promised "one system, one policy, universal service" in return for maintaining AT&T's (at the time) monopoly. Times have changed and today, AT&T along with Verizon are saying universal landline service is costly and unfair due to a now competitive market for voice services.

Both companies have proposed a new set of rules that would allow them to only service the customers they want to service. Some say (including David Cay Johnston in a recent piece at Reuters) this roughly translates to the higher population and wealthy areas where people can afford bundled voice, video and data packages.

Johnston's piece says:
 State capitals are seeing intense lobbying to end universal service obligations but with little public awareness due to the dwindling ranks () of statehouse () reporters. 
The Utility Rate Network, a consumer advocate group, identified 120 AT&T lobbyists in Sacramento, one per California lawmaker. Mary Pat Regan, president of AT&T Kentucky, told me she has 36 lobbyists in that state working on the company's bill to end universal landline service.
Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin have all repealed Universal Service but there have not been any cutbacks.... yet. 

Cell phones, cable and satellite are being proposed as options at least in the rural areas but there are limitations with each. Cell phones are expensive but there are packages for low income people starting at $2 per month. Internet calling is another option but expensive because it requires a broadband connection and a service. Satellite is another option but it's expensive and sometimes there are weather related connection issues.

Johnston finishes his Reuters piece saying:
We.... should not lose sight of the benefits of guaranteed access to affordable basic telephone service. The law should not force people to buy costly services they do not need.Nor should we forget that customers paid for the landline telephone system, including many billions of dollars in rate increases over the past two decades that helped AT&T and Verizon develop their cellular systems. 
If we lose universal service, I doubt we will ever get it back. Let's get a balanced policy rather than quietly rewriting laws to benefit one industry.

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