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Bay Area Leaders Critical of AT&T Plan to Scrap Landlines

AT&T has asked the California Public Utilities Commission to drop it as a “carrier of last resort,” which requires it to provide landline service in its coverage area. San Mateo County supervisors question the impacts to 911 and emergency services.

old landlines
(TNS) — AT&T is facing mounting criticism and opposition over its plan to scrap landline service in most of the Bay Area and much of California.

San Mateo County this week became the latest official critic to take aim at the proposal, which opponents say would leave many older people and rural residents without a communications lifeline in case of a natural disaster, power outage or health crisis. The county’s supervisors are threatening AT&T with a subpoena to obtain information about how cutting landlines could affect rural residents.

AT&T has applied to the California Public Utilities Commission to be dropped as the “carrier of last resort,” a designation requiring it to provide phone service to anyone wanting it in its service area. The telecommunications giant argues that fewer than 7 percent of households in its territory use traditional landlines, “and a great number of those households also have alternatives available where they live.” In its proposal to the utilities commission, AT&T claimed its landline services were “fast becoming a historical curiosity" and serve no “valid public purpose.”

On Tuesday, San Mateo County’s Board of Supervisors demanded that AT&T officials provide documents and testify in person to explain how ending landline services would affect 911 and other emergency services.

“Unfortunately, far too many residents in my district live in areas with unreliable or no cell service whatsoever,” Supervisor Ray Mueller said in a news release. “Cutting off landlines for these residents is, in effect, severing their lifelines to emergency services.”

The county officials addressed a key criticism of AT&T’s plan: that the utility’s claim that cell phone and Internet-phone service can replace landlines does not hold up, because power outages and disaster-damaged infrastructure have shown those technologies to be unreliable.

The utility agreed to meet with San Mateo County supervisors, who expect to learn about “all areas where cellular coverage is lacking or where such service is unreliable,” along with “where cell service has failed in past emergencies,” the news release said. However, if officials remain unsatisfied with AT&T’s responses, “the county retains the power to issue a subpoena,” the news release warned.

AT&T said in a statement that input and feedback from community stakeholders, including comments in public hearings held and planned “is a critical part of the process of upgrading customers from outdated copper lines to more advanced, higher speed technologies like fiber and wireless, which consumers are increasingly demanding.”

San Mateo County’s move comes after similar criticism from Santa Cruz County supervisors including Manu Koenig, who said at a county meeting this month that he had heard from “people who are frankly terrified at the idea of these lines going away and rightfully so,” the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported. An AT&T official was to address that county’s supervisors this week, the paper reported.

Bay Area members of Congress have also launched opposition to AT&T’s plan, with Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee, Anna Eshoo and Mark DeSaulnier joining 11 other California U.S. representatives telling the utilities commission in a Feb. 20 letter that the proposal “threatens public safety in an area plagued by earthquakes, severe storms, floods, and fires, and that has a geography that often disrupts cellular service for days, if not weeks, at a time.”

AT&T said all its California customers will “have access to voice services including 911 and emergency services, whether from us or another provider.” Communications networks running on fiber and wireless systems “are faster, more reliable, use less energy and require less maintenance over time,” AT&T claimed.

More than 4,000 online public comments on the utility’s proposal have been submitted to the state utilities commission, the vast majority opposed. In-person public meetings on the matter have taken place in Clovis and Ukiah, with two more scheduled for Indio, in Southern California on March 14. Two virtual meetings accessible via webcast or phone are to take place March 19.

©2024 Silicon Valley, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.