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Don’t deregulate landline telephone service in Minnesota

The following commentary appeared in the StarTribune Wednesday, April 29, 2015:

By: Will Phillips, Shar Knutson and Lori Swanson

White Desk PhoneBills to remove pricing, accessibility and service protections should not proceed. People still rely on their home phones.

A man in northern Minnesota struggled to breathe late one night. His wife called 911 from their landline telephone. Because the couple must climb a hill outside their home to get cellphone reception, they fear what might have happened if they had no landline.

An elderly rural woman sends pacemaker readings to her faraway heart doctor using her landline phone. She can’t do this with a cellphone.

A southern Minnesota woman uses her landline phone to operate her medical-alert system. She lives on a fixed income.

These and other Minnesotans — including many senior citizens and rural residents — need and deserve local landline phone service that is accessible, affordable and reliable.

To that end, for 100 years, Minnesota has regulated the price and service quality of local telephone service. Minnesota law also requires phone companies to extend service to all Minnesotans, no matter where they live. These laws have served Minnesota well.

Unfortunately, the Legislature is considering bills — H.F. 1066 and S.F. 736 — to eliminate these price and service quality regulations. The bills would allow phone companies to charge higher rates with degraded service and access. Capitol insiders have dubbed the measure the “CenturyLink bill.” A similar deregulation measure in another state is called the “AT&T bill.” It speaks volumes that these bills are named after the phone companies that are pushing them. In one state, prices more than doubled after local telephone service was deregulated.

As representatives of AARP-Minnesota, the Minnesota AFL-CIO and the Minnesota attorney general’s office, we call on the Legislature to reject these bills.

Under the bills:

  • Price protections would end. Telephone companies would be able to charge and raise prices as they desire.
  • Quality would be unregulated. Service quality — such as how often people get a “busy” signal, how long the telephone company has to repair outages and how quickly operators answer calls for assistance — would no longer be regulated.
  • Companies could drop or refuse to take customers, for any reason. This would be especially tough on rural residents, since it costs phone companies more to serve these customers.

The telecommunications industry argues that overturning 100 years of state legal protections won’t matter because cellphones, Voice over Internet Protocol, texting and e-mail can compete with landlines. Baloney. In many parts of Minnesota, cellphone coverage and broadband Internet is spotty or nonexistent. Try e-mailing 911 if you’re having a stroke.

There are many good reasons why people still need access to affordable, reliable landlines. When someone calls 911 in an emergency from a home phone, first responders can automatically detect the address. Many home-security alarms and medical-alert devices operate through landlines. Some people use landlines for dial-up Internet access where broadband is not yet available or affordable.

The phone companies say they will keep up service if they are deregulated. Yet, these same companies right now are lobbying the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to let them out of basic quality of service standards, such as having to fix 95 percent of service outages in 24 hours. Against this backdrop, their claims at the State Capitol should ring hollow.

Will Phillips is state director of AARP-Minnesota. Shar Knutson is president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. Lori Swanson is Minnesota’s attorney general.

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