AARP, Citizens Utility Board fight for landline mandate

AARP, Citizens Utility Board fight for landline mandate

CHAMPAIGN — AARP Illinois and the Citizens Utility Board came out in opposition to state legislation that would eliminate the requirement that AT&T provide traditional landline service.

They warned that without the requirement, AT&T would drop landline service.

"They will say, 'Nobody's going to lose service.' Well, if that's the case, why do you need to change the language?" AARP's Julie Vahling said.

A top AT&T official strongly denied that charge, saying that nobody is going to lose their home phone service.

"Any claim by our opponents implying that home phone service is going away is absolutely false," AT&T Illinois President Paul La Schiazza said in a statement. "At AT&T, we value our customers, and we want to keep them. In this transition, we want to improve the technology customers use for voice calling service from old service to modern landlines and wireless. About 90 percent of households in AT&T territory already moved to modern wired and wireless services."

But AARP and the CUB are worried about the remaining 10 percent and argue the new services aren't as reliable as traditional landlines, pointing to a 911 outage last month for AT&T wireless customers that lasted over an hour.

"They are mandating that users use a certain form of modern technology that has not yet gotten to that level of reliability (of the copper-based network). All we're asking is, let's get to that level of reliability," Vahling said. "I can be within an hour of downtown Chicago and have poor reception."

Consumers need high reliability for 911 and some medical monitoring devices, Vahling said.

The Illinois Telecommunications Act expires on June 30, so something will need to be passed by then. AT&T unsuccessfully sought to remove the landline requirement in 2015 when the act was previously set to expire.

Vahling encouraged lawmakers to wait to remove the landline requirement until the new technology is reliable enough and more people are using it.

"What we're asking is, just to slow down," she said. "There's nothing stopping the Legislature from simply changing the expiration date on the telecom act and putting it two years down the road."

AT&T, on the other hand, says it's unnecessarily spending money maintaining outdated technology it could be investing in modern infrastructure.

AT&T, which last year had a net income of $13 billion, annually spends about $1 billion in Illinois on infrastructure, with about 20 to 30 percent of that going toward the traditional, copper-based network, company spokesman Eric Robinson said.

"What we are working to do is to invest money appropriately," Robinson said. "And to continue to spend precious resources, capital investment, on old technologies ... it doesn't make sense."

If approved, the legislation would only remove the requirement for AT&T once the Federal Communications Commission allowed it. If that happened, AT&T says 99.2 percent of households in its territory already have access to modern wired telephone service.

If someone were left without landline access, the legislation would allow them to petition the Illinois Commerce Commission to force AT&T to provide traditional landline service.

AT&T also tried to allay any concerns about medical devices, saying that it's required to provide reliable replacement services for such devices.

"The FCC recently made clear that AT&T cannot stop offering legacy voice services that provide these applications unless robust replacement services are available to consumers," Robinson said.

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