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Will the CPUC yield to AT&T despite over eight hours of public protest?

On Tuesday, March 19, a CPUC administrative law judge presided over two lengthy virtual hearings filled with vehement objections to AT&T’s request for relief from its landline service obligation.

“It’s laughable that AT&T needs relief from anything,” one caller remarked.

Over 200 rural, urban-suburban residents and elected officials waited on the line—for several hours in many cases—to urge the Commission to deny AT&T’s request to abandon traditional landline service in a large portion of its California service territory (including Marin). An afternoon hearing ran close to three hours, with people still remaining in the queue. A 6:00 hearing lasted until 11:40 p.m.

Many Marin and Bay Area residents joined others up and down the state who rely on landline connectivity for a variety of reasons. Several made the point that not only customers in rural, remote, unserved, underserved or urban dead zones are dependent on wired landlines, but also elderly, disabled, socially isolated persons, and the growing number of individuals who cannot use wireless devices because emissions make them ill.

A Santa Rosa woman remarked,

"Until we can prove that cell phones are safe, it is not right to force people to use them."

Basic needs were shared.

"I live in the Oakland Hills—no wireless, fiber or cable. I need DSL to order food and medicine."

Medical emergencies were shared.

"I have had multiple strokes and heart attacks. I probably don't have much time left, but in that time I need my landline!"

Several city council members and county supervisors told the judge and commissioner assigned to the case that their counties must have reliable landlines for their emergency infrastructure, and would not be able to protect their citizens without them.

A technical director in broadcast TV reported that landlines are essential for voice quality and reliability.

Lack of faith in cellular technology was a common theme, with many citing dropped calls, spotty service, inconsistent signals or collapse of service altogether. When swaths of AT&T customers across the nation experienced such a collapse on February 22, some emergency services instructed people to "use your landline" or “find a neighbor with a landline.” Some callers were wildfire survivors and landlines proved to be lifelines. One said that his family barely escaped the Paradise fire because cell calls and emails failed to go through; he was able to get through by landline in time for them to pack up and just make it out.

A woman who had experienced a Northern California fire said,

"Only the landline worked. We would not have survived without it.”

Still others claimed that landline availability is about “life or death,” asking who would be held responsible for lives lost in the event of unavailable or faulty communication in disasters. "America used to have the attitude of, if it saves one life its worth it," another caller added.

Lack of trust in AT&T was also a refrain, with customers pointing to runaway rate increases without warning or explanation, false advertising, poor landline repair and poor follow-through on service complaints. These testimonies echoed a TURN policy director’s comments to a Channel 7 reporter in January:

“They (AT&T) have actively tried to drive people away from using landlines by not maintaining their network and then when people call in to complain it will take a long time to fix it, but if you want to switch over you’ll get it right away. This is the game they’ve been playing for a few years now.”

AT&T’s profit of $1.64 billion last year was cited as evidence that AT&T could upgrade wireless technology while simultaneously maintaining landline service. “It doesn’t have to be “either-or,” callers offered.

Distrust of CPUC was voiced by people convinced that CPUC serves the entities they regulate rather than the public interest. Some called attention to PG&E-caused fires, after which victims were insufficiently reimbursed or PG&E passed costs on to customers.

About 20 callers, some sounding recruited and scripted by AT&T, voiced support for approval of AT&T's request. One of these was a spokesperson for Equality California, a large organization that lists AT&T as a corporate sponsor. Most callers who favored AT&T’s request spoke about how approval of AT&T's request would bring important "modernization" to the advancement of their organization's mission.

But a caller opposing AT&T’s request questioned the “modernization” arguments. She wondered how AT&T can claim that landline service is “antiquated," or how anyone can claim that wireless technology can replace landlines any time soon when cellphones are "not the best thing now!" Her observations were substantially supported by hours of testimony that demonstrated landline reliability, landline security, ease of use and clear voice quality—hours of testimonials to a superior technology deserving of respectful preservation and maintenance.

Evidentiary hearings will be held in April, and a CPUC decision will be made later this year on AT&T’s application for relief from its Carrier Of Last Resort obligation under California law.

Media Coverage of the March 19 hearings:

KTVU: California landline users sound off . . .

KRCA: Customers with hearing loss concerned . . .

ABC 7: Proposal to end landline service draws support and opposition

Bay City Almanac: Hearing inundated with telephone comments

If you would like to add your voice:

--Submit a comment to the CPUC docket itself.Brief is fine. (It may be helpful to have your statement ready to copy/paste.) Go here.

--Call/email the CPUC Public Advisor's Office:

--Email Commissioner Reynolds (assigned to the case). Remind him briefly and courteously about how essential landline service is to you (and/or a family member, friend).