California Residents Concerned About AT&T Request to Phase Out Landline Service

Nearly 4,000 California residents have expressed that their landline connection frequently acts as their sole means of communication.

California Residents Concerned About AT&T Request to Phase Out Landline Service
Photo of AT&T retail store in Palo Alto, California via Creative Commons license.

WASHINGTON, February 26, 2024 – AT&T is looking to abandon its obligation to provide landline telephone service across large swaths of California, which would leave more than 580,000 rural subscribers with more limited options for phone services.

AT&T has filed the request to the California Public Utilities Commission to be relieved of its carrier-of-last-resort obligations in significant portions of the state.

As California’s largest designated COLR, the company is required to offer landline phone service upon request to all residential and business customers within the service territories it covers.

The CPUC has stated that for AT&T’s application to be approved, the company must show that another provider can offer universal support in the areas where AT&T seeks to relinquish its COLR designation, reports ArsTechnica.

AT&T argued in its application that it is only seeking "modest regulatory reforms" to provide "tailored relief from its outdated COLR obligation." The obligation requires AT&T "to wastefully operate and maintain two duplicative networks: one, an antiquated, narrowband network with an ever-dwindling base of subscribers, and the other, a forward-looking, fiber and wireless broadband network," the company said.

Because of the COLR requirement, "AT&T California alone must continue to fulfill every request to extend an outdated voice-centric network to anyone, anywhere within its footprint, even in cases where the customer has access to a modern alternative," AT&T said, adding that Comcast, Charter, Cox, Verizon, and T-Mobile do not face the same obligation. 

Meanwhile, close to 4,000 residents of California have provided feedback to the CPUC, with many emphasizing that their landline connection often serves as their only form of communication. Noting that their respective regions are plagued by severe power outages and wildfires.

AT&T's California application said it has already received some relief from carrier-of-last-resort obligations in 20 other states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

The company first filed to end its COLR obligation in March 2023. An evidentiary hearing has been scheduled for April, and a proposed decision is expected from the CPUC in September.

The complete list of census-designated places where AT&T is requesting to withdraw as the designated COLR has been filed with the CPUC, along with a virtual map featuring address lookup.

Additionally, AT&T is asking for CPUC approval to give up its ETC designation, which would allow the company to forgo a requirement to offer federal Lifeline, and other federal programs designed to subsidize telecommunications support for low-income individuals and individuals located in remote areas. 

The CPUC has said that for a household receiving federal Lifeline from AT&T, the bill could increase by $5.25 per month for voice-only service, or $9.25 per month for bundled or Internet service. A household on Tribal lands receiving federal Lifeline from AT&T could experience an additional $25 per month bill increase.

If the CPUC approves AT&T's application, all regions within AT&T's service territory where it presently holds ETC designation (identical to its COLR service territory) will face the impacts of having no obligated provider of reliable access to 911 communications or Lifeline program discounts.

The first of four public hearings on the application was held by the CPUC on February 6, with the last opportunity for spoken public comments scheduled virtually for March 19. Public feedback is being solicited through the CPUC’s virtual comment docket.

Public feedback underscores statewide dependence on landline communication

Recent feedback from residents underscores the vital role of landlines in ensuring dependable access to emergency ‘911’ services. Additionally, residents described reliability issues with DSL, cable, and wireless internet services, which would serve as alternatives for many in the state currently without fiber optic lines.

“Living in a high fire zone, we depend on the house telephone to warn us of fires and the need to evacuate. Our code red link as well as the ‘Happening Now’ website through AT&T are vital to our ability to respond during a crisis. We have no reliable cell phone service,” stated a resident of Nevada City.

“My AT&T landline is needed for medical device monitoring. It is the ONLY means of communication in my home. I have NO cell service in my home location, no signal. I am 80 years old. Losing my landline would endanger my life,” a Coloma resident said.

One resident of Pasadena argued that if the CPUC approves AT&T’s discontinuation of copper landline telephone service it would constitute a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA.

“This will cause harm to the disabled and elderly communities who live in areas that do not have reliable wireless and internet service in their homes. Only landline phones have service quality protections under GO 133-D. As the senior population grows there will be a greater need to reliably connect with essential services and for the 911 system to have more accurate geolocation. Only landline phones have service quality standards protection (GO 133-D, Section 3) that are guaranteed by law. Wireless, VoIP, and Broadband do not,” she wrote.

Several comments referenced frequent power outages and inadequate cellular reception in the area, particularly during severe weather and fire emergencies, as grounds to refute AT&T's request.

A resident of Solvang recounted multiple instances over the past five years where they had to rely on a landline to contact emergency responders during life-threatening events caused by power outages. They noted that two lives were directly saved in their vicinity, and numerous other emergency responses were coordinated using landlines during a significant power outage. 

In a separate incident, life-saving emergency responders were able to arrive because a landline was accessible when wireless service failed, despite the power being on. The resident stressed that without landline services they would not have survived.

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