“Don’t let them drop us!” Landline users protest AT&T copper retirement plan

A pair of scissors being used to cut a wire coming out of a landline telephone.

AT&T’s application to end its landline phone obligations in California is drawing protest from residents as state officials consider whether to let AT&T off the hook.

AT&T filed an application to end its Carrier of Last Resort (COLR) obligation in March 2023. The first of several public hearings on the application is being held today by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which is considering AT&T’s request. An evidentiary hearing has been scheduled for April, and a proposed decision is expected in September.

AT&T has said it won’t cut off phone service immediately, but ending the COLR obligation would make it easier for AT&T to drop its phone lines later on. AT&T’s application said it would provide basic phone service in all areas for at least six months and indefinitely in areas without any alternative voice service.

“If approved by the CPUC, over 580,000 affected AT&T customers would be left with fewer options in terms of choice, quality, and affordability,” warns the Rural County Representatives of California. “Alternative services, such as VoIP and wireless, have no obligation to serve a customer or to provide equivalent services to AT&T landline customers, including no obligation to provide reliable access to 911 or Lifeline program discounts.”

“Please don’t let them drop us!”

Recent comments from residents stressed the importance of landlines for emergency services. Residents also described problems with wireless service that could serve as the only replacement for copper networks in areas that AT&T hasn’t deemed profitable enough for fiber lines.

“We live in the country with no cell service so the landline we have is the only way we can get help in an emergency,” a resident of Moss Landing wrote today. “There are only 5 homes on our part of the line. I don’t see any other company volunteering to pick up our service after we have heard AT&T tell us so many times we would be the very last to get things fixed due to the little amount of homes. Please don’t let them drop us!”

The docket has received over 2,100 comments in the past three weeks and about 2,300 overall that are overwhelmingly opposed to AT&T’s plan. There are another 600 comments on a separate docket for a related AT&T application.

Even some residents who have access to cable companies, which generally offer VoIP service, aren’t ready to give up their old copper landlines.

“Internet over cable has gotten more reliable, but not so reliable that I’m willing to stake my lifeline telecommunication service on it,” a resident of Hayward wrote yesterday. “In fact, I keep DSL service on my POTS [Plain Old Telephone Service] line as a backup to our cable Internet service… Emergency 911 service over cell phones still doesn’t work. The last time I tried to report a grass fire adjacent to a Cal State University, the dispatcher didn’t know what city I was calling from.”

Carrier of last resort must provide service to anyone

AT&T recently filed an objection to how opponents are describing its phone service plans. An AT&T filing on January 16 disputed claims that low-income households could see their bills double and that “AT&T has stated that it intends to shut down its telephone network.”

“AT&T California will continue to offer basic telephone service in all of its service area unless and until it separately obtains all necessary permission to stop, so no customer will lose service if the Commission approves AT&T California’s application,” AT&T said.

According to AT&T’s application, the company has to complete the Section 214 discontinuance process run by the Federal Communications Commission to discontinue service in any given area fully.

CPUC says in a summary of the situation that “AT&T is the designated COLR in many parts of the state and is the largest COLR in California.” This means “the company must provide traditional landline telephone service to any potential customer in that service territory. AT&T is proposing to withdraw as the COLR in your area without a new carrier being designated as a COLR.”

“If AT&T’s proposal were accepted as set forth in its application, then no COLR would be required to provide basic service in your area,” the state agency said. “This does not necessarily mean that no carriers would, in fact, provide service in your area—only that they would not be required to do so. Other outcomes are possible, such as another carrier besides AT&T volunteering to become the COLR in your area, or the CPUC denying AT&T’s proposal.”

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