FRANKFORT — A bill that would deregulate telephone service in Kentucky and possibly put in jeopardy rural customers would be guaranteed landline service might be dead.
Senate Bill 88, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, and pushed by AT&T passed the Republican-controlled Senate but faces major opposition in the Democratic-controlled House.
Hornback’s legislation would allow companies like AT&T to drop landline service if comparable services are available from another source. AT&T claims lifting the restriction is necessary to allow the it to invest in wireless services and expand in Kentucky.
But opponents, including House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, argue rural and older customers, especially in eastern Kentucky where AT&T wireless service is at times spotty, depend on the service as a reliable connection to emergency services, family and the outside world.
The House Committee on Tourism, Development and Energy heard Thursday from Hornback and AT&T executive Patrick Turner as well as opponents of the bill like AARP and Tom Fitzgerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.
The committee is chaired by Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, and includes other skeptical eastern Kentucky lawmakers, including Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, and Rep. John Short, D-Hindman.
Hall said the committee was prepared to consider a substitute to Hornback’s bill which would was largely written by Fitzgerald and which would allow non-landline service if alternative technology was “just as functional and just s reliable” as landline service.
No one would lose landline service under that arrangement, Fitzgerald said, because “such technology doesn’t currently exist.”
Hornback’s bill includes a “carve-out” for telephone exchanges of 5,000 customers or less, exempting those from losing landlines. He and Turner say failure to pass the bill will cost Kentucky millions in investment, high-speed Internet services and wireless expansion.
Turner said opponents’ objections are nothing more than “rhetoric” unsupported by facts. The latter, he said, show the company will move planned investments in Kentucky to states with friendlier regulatory environments.
Hornback said he’s asked opponents to produce examples of customers being denied landline services in other states which have passed legislation similar to his “and no one has been able to do so.”
Hall, the committee chair, said the proposed committee substitute “just guarantees Public Service Commission oversight to make sure Mom and Pop don’t lose their lines unless there is functional and reliable service to replace it.”
After Turner dismissed opponents’ criticisms as rhetoric and said the bill isn’t about prices or service but about competition and expanded services, Combs said those aren’t lawmakers’ first obligation.
“This committee sub is being drafted to take care of our constituents first — not the corporation,” Combs said.
Speaker Pro Tem, Larry Clark, D-Louisville, angrily complained that AT&T is paying for “robo-calls” to constituents of House leadership to pressure them to support the company’s bill.
But that won’t work, he said, admonishing the company to work with opponents to find a bill acceptable to lawmakers.
Stumbo said Wednesday such calls were going to households in his district as well. On Thursday, he said the bill “has problems” and he doesn’t know if Hall will call it or the committee substitute for a vote.
Clay Corbett, member of Communications Workers of America and an AT&T employee in eastern Kentucky, said the company’s direction is clearly moving from landline service to wireless services. Regardless of assurances from the company, he said, older customers fear losing landlines.
“The older generations are still committed to landline service,” Corbett said.
In the end, no vote was taken on either the bill or the substitute. That doesn’t mean it’s dead — but with time running out in the session, its prospects aren’t that good, either.