News Column

AT&T still pushing to reform telecom laws

August 22, 2014

By Chuck Stinnett, The Gleaner, Henderson, Ky.

Aug. 22--HENDERSON, Ky. -- AT&T is campaigning once again for legislation that would free it from investing in its old landline business so it can focus on newer technologies, its state president told a Kyndle breakfast audience Thursday.

"We have got to keep up in Kentucky or we'll fall behind," Hood Harris declared.

AT&T is bound by laws that date to when the telephone business was a regulated monopoly -- a time Harris characterized as the era of "the rotary dial pone on the wall, when if you wanted privacy you just bought a really long cord."

Today, numerous companies -- cable TV companies, wireless carriers and more -- compete for phone business. Increasingly, telephone calls are handled over the Internet -- a technology called Voice over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, which is offered by companies ranging from Time Warner Cable to Vonage to Basic Talk -- or wirelessly through cellphones and other devices.

Many people are discontinuing having a landline altogether. "Forty-one percent of households are wireless only," Harris said.

But AT&T said it is obligated to provide basic phone service via copper-wire landlines using old, voice-only technology. "Our guys are buying switches for the old network off eBay" because new equipment isn't being manufactured anymore, he said.

There is resistance to changing state law. "There are those who say, we can't do this -- that if we go to IP technology, someone will lose their phone service or won't be able to call 911," Harris said.

"They're scare tactics," he said.

"Some of our competitors" -- who aren't bound by the state regulation -- "are trying to gin up those fears," Harris said.

"Seventeen other states have passed laws, and not one person has lost service and not one person has lost access to 911," he insisted. " ... Seventy percent of 911 calls today come from wireless devices."

Harris said AT&T has proposed to continue to provide copper-wire service in territories already served by those wires without being required to extend new phone lines into new areas.

Resistance has been especially stiff in Eastern Kentucky and remote areas where wireless service isn't always reliable and broadband service isn't available. Harris said if AT&T didn't have to keep investing in its copper-wire network, it could spend more to expand wireless coverage.

The bill won some support for the measure during the 2014 Kentucky General Assembly; he said it passed the state Senate 34-4, and a House committee approved it 15-0, but it died there.

"It never got to a vote on the House floor," Harris said.

As a result, AT&T has announced it will bring new technologies such as GigaPower -- an ultrafast fiber network that would deliver data at speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, 10 times faster than the fastest consumer Internet available in most cities today -- to cities in states that have changed their telecommunications law, such as Nashville and Clarksville, Tenn. But it's not coming to Kentucky, at least for now.

"We've let state after state get ahead of us; they're in line" for such investments, Harris said. "We're investing $20 billion across the country; that's a lot of money, but it is finite," and investments are being made in the markets that are the most favorable.

Kyndle has supported telecommunication law reform for years, President Brad Schneider told the audience.

"It's not just about AT&T," he said. "As an economic development agency, we understand the importance of infrastructure. That's the kind of investment that's important to what we do."


(c)2014 The Gleaner (Henderson, Ky.)

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Source: Gleaner, The (Henderson, KY)

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