Editorial: Service optional?

The requirement for landline telephone service to be provided throughout the state may be going away.

A bill that could have a profound impact on the availability and affordability of telephone service across the state is moving through the Kansas Legislature.

If it is passed, it may not have a great effect on urban areas of the state where customers generally have at least a few choices of who provides their phone service. However, in the rural parts of the state, where there is little or no competition for landline phone service, the impact could be severe.

House Bill 2201 makes a number of changes in Kansas Universal Service Fund support for telephone companies that provide service in low-revenue areas. However, the provisions of the bill that may be of greatest concern to individual consumers are those that relieve AT&T, the state’s largest local telephone service provider, of the obligation to provide landline telephone services in its designated areas and to provide that service at a reasonable cost. It also eliminates the authority of the Kansas Corporation Commission to enforce quality of service requirements.

David Springe, consumer counsel for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, has outlined the impacts of the bill in legislative testimony, pointing out that the bill was written by telephone companies specifically for their own benefit. Key among those benefits is the elimination for AT&T of “carrier of last resort” obligations, which require the company to provide landline service even in rural areas where it is less profitable. Without that requirement, AT&T will be allowed to either drop that service entirely or raise its rates in those areas.

During recent legislative testimony, Springe noted that the bill would allow AT&T, a strong backer of the bill, to rid itself of less-profitable services by walking away from its “carrier of last resort” obligations in 134 exchanges across the state. The bill, he said, “will allow AT&T to only serve who it wants, when it wants, where it wants and at whatever price it wants.”

The bill also allows telecommunications carriers to opt out of the Kansas Lifeline Services Program, which provides discounted telephone services for low-income customers. AT&T officials told legislators that they had no immediate plans to drop out of the Lifeline program “or to leave customers behind or abandon certain markets.” That may be the case now, but the legislation leaves the state no recourse if AT&T changes its mind and starts dropping service in certain areas.

Supporters of the bill tout the availability of wireless telephone and Internet service, but those are not a good, reliable option in many rural parts of the state. Allowing telephone companies to pick and choose the areas they will serve seems to stand in opposition to the governor’s emphasis on providing economic support to rural Kansas communities. What is more important to rural businesses, schools, hospitals and other entities than reliable phone service and fast Internet connections to help them serve their customers and communities?

The House passed the telecommunications bill earlier this month, but changes made by the Senate likely will send the bill to a conference committee. It’s an issue that will have the greatest impact on people in less populated areas of the state, but the trend it forwards also should be of statewide concern.