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California Public Utilities Commission rejects AT&T's request to shut down landline service

AT&T is the only landline provider in California, March 19, 2024. Courtesy of Ruth Dusseault/Bay City News Service.

At its meeting on Thursday, June 20, the California Public Utilities Commission rejected AT&T's request to shut down landline and other services in certain areas of California, including much of San Mateo County.

“This is a victory for some of our county’s most vulnerable residents whose phones are their lifeline,” San Mateo County Executive Ray Mueller said in a press release.

AT&T filed a petition in March 2023 to be relieved of its obligation as a carrier of last resort in certain areas of California. A carrier of last resort is required to provide basic services, typically wireline services, in a specific area.

AT&T is the carrier of last resort in many parts of the state, including most of San Mateo County. Its service area includes many of California's most rural regions.

In its proposal, the telecom giant argued that this requirement – a relic of a pre-cellular era – would force it to maintain both an outdated narrowband network and its modern wireless broadband and fiber-optic network, without the federal funding it used to receive to provide service in rural areas.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously against AT&T's switch in March, citing that rural residents, seniors and people with speech or hearing impairments should have free access to 911 and telephone relay services.

The resolution states: “For many vulnerable residents of rural and semi-rural areas of San Mateo County, the copper wireline service provided by AT&T is the only reliable access to communications, particularly during emergency situations and natural disasters such as storms, wildfires, and earthquakes.”

“There are residents in both rural and urban areas of San Mateo County who rely on this COLR service,” Mueller said at the CPUC meeting in San Luis Obispo. “Particularly during power outages in urban areas, people with access and functional needs need to be able to get help during local outages, and in rural areas where we have tremendous connectivity issues on the coast during power outages that sometimes last weeks.”

At its June 20 meeting, the CPUC ultimately unanimously rejected AT&T's proposal because there was no alternative service provider in many parts of the state.

In a press release, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, Democrat of Menlo Park, said, “The CPUC made the right decision to hold AT&T to its promise and commitment to provide telephone service to our constituents in areas with unreliable cell reception. If the only way to provide this COLR service is through copper landlines, AT&T must provide and maintain them. These communication lines are vital to rural residents, especially during public emergencies such as fires, earthquakes, floods, and landslides. Cost savings must never be more important than public safety.”

However, landline connections in rural San Mateo County may not be secure for much longer. House Bill 2797, currently before the State Assembly, would loosen AT&T's obligations as a carrier of last resort.

Under certain circumstances, AT&T and any other service provider acting as carrier of last resort could terminate their obligations without the approval of the CPUC.

AB 2797 will be heard before the Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Communications on July 2.

Mueller announced that he would present a resolution opposing AB 2797 to the Board of Supervisors at its meeting on Tuesday, June 25.

“On the eve of the rejection of AT&T's application to the CPUC, a bill was introduced in the state legislature to eliminate the CPUC's regulatory authority after AT&T spent significant sums on campaign contributions over the past decade,” Mueller said in the press release. “I hope our local state legislatures will reject AB 2797 because the health and safety of our county's most vulnerable residents depend on the safeguards the CPUC has put in place to protect those who need COLR access.”

Anna Harden

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