California commission signals opposition to AT&T landline request

A request from telecommunications giant AT&T to withdraw itself from an obligation to provide landline and other traditional telephone services to large swaths of California customers appears doomed after the state commission responsible for considering such applications signaled its opposition in a news release Friday.

The California Public Utilities Commission released a proposal to reject AT&T’s application to remove itself as a carrier of last resort provider after the request sparked an overwhelming public outcry from customers across the state, including many in Santa Cruz County.

The proposal is expected to appear on the commission’s June 20 voting meeting agenda.

According to the release, the proposed rejection appears based in large part on AT&T’s failure to demonstrate sufficient alternatives to the landline option many residents still rely on for critical services.

“The CPUC’s proposal underscores the critical importance of ensuring universal access to essential telecommunications services for all Californians,” reads the release. “Despite AT&T’s contention that providers of voice alternatives to landline service – such as VoIP or mobile wireless services – can fill the gap, the CPUC found AT&T did not meet the requirements for COLR withdrawal. Specifically, AT&T failed to demonstrate the availability of replacement providers willing and able to serve as COLR, nor did AT&T prove that alternative providers met the COLR definition.”

AT&T is currently the largest last resort provider in the state, which means that for areas in which it is the default telephone service provider, it has an obligation to provide “traditional telephone service” to any potential customer in its service area, often coming in the form of copper landlines.

Despite assurances from AT&T that it would not cut service in areas without a viable alternative — such as mobile wireless or internet-based options — many customers in the county, particularly in rural or mountainous regions, said they were panicked by the request. Many feared that while they had some cellphone service, it was unreliable and in emergency situations — such as a wildfire — a dropped call can be the difference between life and death. Similarly, while internet-based options are technically available, they frequently go down in wildfire or storm events.

“This is a victory for many in our community that rely on landlines as a lifeline,” 2nd District Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend, who attended one of the commission’s public forums to speak out against the proposal, told the Sentinel in an email. “It’s clear there is no adequate backup system for many of our rural residents. Until that is the case, requests to abandon the service, which I believe functionally abandons these residents, have no place coming forward.”

In February, Friend voted alongside his four colleagues on the county board to approve sending a letter to the state commission voicing its opposition to the application.

AT&T has argued that the landline technology is obsolete and that it has become a competitive disadvantage and drain on resources better used for exploring new technologies. It also downplayed the pace of the change, saying if the application was approved the withdrawal process could take months or even years.

“We are disappointed by the CPUC’s proposed dismissal of our application for relief from Carrier of Last Resort (COLR) regulation, as we’d hoped the commission would allow us the opportunity to demonstrate why the number of options for voice service available to customers make the COLR obligation unnecessary,” wrote AT&T in a statement to the Sentinel. “Not surprisingly, no providers were interested in bidding on a service with a declining number of customers given the competitive options available in today’s marketplace. We remain committed to keeping our customers connected to voice service and will continue working with state leaders on policies that allow us to bring modern communications to Californians.”

According to the release, more than 5,000 public comments were received by the state commission during its eight public forums which drew in more than 5,800 virtual and in-person attendees.

The proposal also includes an intention by the commission to initiate a new rule-making process that seeks to adapt its regulations to evolving market conditions and technological advancements, according to the release.

“This is a terrific direction, especially for our isolated seniors in the mountains,” said Gine Johnson, an analyst for 5th District Supervisor Bruce McPherson who represents the San Lorenzo Valley. “We definitely will call the (CPUC) and give testimony and send something that says we very much support this direction for sure.”

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