California Says AT&T Can’t Drop Landline Service in Rural Areas

California Says AT&T Can’t Drop Landline Service in Rural Areas

The PUC "made the right decision," said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, a Bay Area Democrat. Above, Ms. Eshoo speaks to reporters in Washington on May 14, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Travis Gillmore
Travis Gillmore

6/21/2024

Updated: 6/21/2024

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AT&T must keep providing landline phone service to California’s rural areas, state regulators said June 20 after getting an earful from far-flung residents fearful of being cut off.
The California Public Utility Commission voted to dismiss a proposal from AT&T to withdraw as a carrier of last resort—meaning the state requires the company to offer basic communication services for all residents in certain coverage areas—after thousands of public comments poured in saying its landline services are the only option for some rural residents.
“Our vote to dismiss AT&T’s application made clear that we will protect customer access to basic telephone service—no matter where they live, income, or access to other forms of communication,” Commissioner John Reynolds said during the hearing. “Our rules were designed to provide that assurance, and AT&T’s application did not follow our rules.”
As the largest carrier of last resort in the state, AT&T provides most basic services through copper landlines, but the company was seeking the ability to stop maintaining and serving some areas in 53 of California’s 58 counties.
State law requires at least one carrier to provide reliable service to ensure that all Californians have telephone access. State subsidies help cover the expenses.
Commissioners said one issue with the phone company’s request was a lack of replacement or reliable access for those who would be left without if AT&T withdrew.
“The ... rejection of AT&T’s request underscores the critical importance of ensuring universal access to essential telecommunications services for all Californians,” a June 20 utility commission press release read. “Specifically, AT&T failed to demonstrate the availability of replacement providers willing and able to serve.”
Any technology—including copper, fiber, cable, and wireless, among others—can be used to provide reliable access to 911 and other phone services, but in mountainous and remote locations, cellular and internet-based services remain unavailable for as many as 580,000 Californians who rely on copper landlines, according to documents filed with the commission by Marin County.
One California congresswoman hailed the commission’s vote.
“The [public utility commission] made the right decision to hold AT&T to its promise and obligation to provide phone service to our constituents in areas with unreliable cell service,” Rep. Anna G. Eshoo posted June 20 on X. “If the only option to provide this [carrier of last resort] service is through copper landlines, then AT&T must provide and maintain those.”
Dobby Summer, a rural resident with no option other than a traditional landline at her home of more than 50 years in Northern California’s Mendocino County, called in during the hearing asking commissioners to dismiss the company’s request.
“As a disabled senior, it’s my lifeline and I need it,” she said.
Her comments echoed more than 5,000 received during hours of hearings and eight public outreach events across the state, according to the commission’s press release.
Multiple rural and coastal residents told The Epoch Times that landlines are their only means of communicating with family members and for essential services. They also expressed fear for their safety in an emergency if they had no access to a phone.
“Wildfire could start at any time, and if we can’t alert our neighbors or call the fire department, it could be a very dangerous situation,” said Warren Ware, a Potter Valley resident living with his wife in the foothills of Northern California miles from the nearest reliable cellular service. “Those of us living out here need these landlines.”
While AT&T’s proposal was rejected, the decision does not necessarily require the company to continue offering landline services, though before the copper wires are retired, investments in cellular or other options would have to improve availability to cover its obligations.
Noting the changes in the telecommunications industry in the nearly 30 years since the existing carrier of last resort regulations were enacted in 1996, the commissioners also opened a new rulemaking process.
Such is needed, according to the commission, to match evolving markets and technologies and better serve companies and consumers.
“For nearly 30 years, the carrier of last resort rules have been essential for ensuring universal telephone service in California,” said Alice Reynolds, president of the utility commission. “This new rulemaking provides an opportunity to update the ... rules and ... to better meet the needs of Californians and to achieve the state’s Broadband for All objectives.”
Also potentially complicating the matter is a newly amended piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 2797—authored by Assemblywoman Tina McKinnor—which would allow for carriers of last resort to discontinue their service in certain instances.
The phone company said it is collaborating with lawmakers on the bill to create a sustainable path forward.
“No customer will be left without voice and 911 services. We are focused on the legislation introduced in California, which includes important protections, safeguards and outreach for consumers, and does not impact our customers in rural locations,” Mark Blakeman, president of AT&T California, said in a statement emailed to The Epoch Times June 21.
“We are fully committed to keeping our customers connected while we work with state leaders on policies that create a thoughtful transition that brings modern communications to all Californians.”
The bill is currently awaiting a hearing by the Senate’s Energy, Utilities, and Communications Committee.
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Travis Gillmore is an avid reader and journalism connoisseur based in California covering finance, politics, the State Capitol, and breaking news for The Epoch Times.

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