Kentucky appears ready to join at least two dozen other states in deregulating its landline telephone services, the beginning of the end for the more than 100- year- old technology that is being pushed out by cellphones and high-speed Internet access.
The state Senate voted 30-3 this week to strip the Public Service Commission of its authority to make telecommunications companies install and maintain landline telephone service. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said after the vote he will sign it into law.
The bill only affects areas that have at least 15,000 households, meaning the rural mountainous parts of the state famous for their spotty cellphone coverage would still have access to landlines. And companies could not take away someone’s landline in an urban area unless the Federal Communications Commission approved it.
But the bill allows the larger telecommunications companies — AT&T, Cincinnati Bell and Windstream — to begin scaling back their landline services in favor of other options, including Internet telephone service. Since 2006, at least 26 states have passed laws that either eliminate or limit oversight from public service commissions, according to a 2014 report from Ball State University.
“ Consumers are demanding new technology and this bill will allow that investment,” AT&T of Kentucky President Hood Harris said, adding that an average of 8,000 of AT&T’s Kentucky customers each month drop their landline service.
But opponents note new households and people who move would not be guaranteed a landline. The landline telephone networks are independently powered, meaning they still work even if the power goes out. The Alarm Industry Communications Committee sent a letter to lawmakers last week noting that many newer telephone technologies, including Internet phone service, do not support home-security systems.
Tom FitzGerald, the executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, added that the terms of service for AT&T’s U-verse system specifically note that “uninterrupted, timely, secure, error free” access to 911 is not guaranteed. He said that after Virginia deregulated its landline service, a major windstorm resulted in “systemic failures” in 911 service, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
“To deprive customers of the right to continue to receive phone service over independently powered landlines that provide an essential lifeline in cases of emergencies and power interruption is nothing short of dangerous,” FitzGerald said.
But At& T said by not spending money on a service that is increasingly less popular, it can spend more money on the high-speed Internet connections that state officials covet. Kentucky ranks near the bottom in access to high-speed Internet connections, including patches of sparsely populated eastern Kentucky whose mountains make it difficult to install fiber-optic cables.
Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers see broadband Internet access as the key to ending the region’s dependence on the declining coal industry. Last year, the state signed a contract with an Australian-based company to lay 3,000 miles of fiber-optic cable at a cost of between $250 million and $350 million.