An aerial view of San Jose, California
An aerial view of San Jose. Photo courtesy of The 111th Photography.

A state bill that would have let AT&T off the hook for emergency landline service — circumventing state regulators and affecting remote pockets of Santa Clara County — is on hold after public backlash.

Assembly Bill 2797 has been pulled from the California Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee meeting slated for Tuesday. It comes after the bill — originally about horse racing — was gutted and amended to give telecommunications companies another way out of their “carrier of last resort” duty if they submit a notice showing a lack of customers or that alternative services are available. Critics said AT&T is behind the bill, which Assemblymember Tina McKinnor introduced just before state utility regulators denied AT&T’s request to withdraw from its state obligation.

The bill is unlikely to be considered in the current state legislative session.

“While we are disappointed that AB 2797 will not be voted on, we are committed to working with state lawmakers, community groups and stakeholders to find a path forward that keeps customers connected, modernizes California’s communications network and ensures no customer will be left without voice and 911 services,” Marc Blakeman, president of AT&T California, told San José Spotlight.

A representative with The Utility Reform Network (TURN), an Oakland-based group that advocates for affordable connectivity, said AT&T retreated and pulled the bill in the face of public scrutiny.

“Californians saw through AT&T’s smoke and mirrors,” TURN’s Telecom Policy Director Regina Costa told San José Spotlight. “The bill wasn’t about modernizing AT&T’s network, it was about giving AT&T the power to walk away from providing any kind of service wherever it chose.”

The “carrier of last resort” designation requires AT&T to provide minimum telephone services in exchange for the right to cross state-owned lands. AT&T applied to exit its designation last year, prompting more than 5,000 letters to the California Public Utilities Commission from members of the public who mostly opposed the request, which would have withdrawn minimum service from areas across Silicon Valley. The disconnect would have left residents in rural parts of South County, Santa Cruz Mountains, Diablo Range and San Jose in the dark during natural disasters.

Significant portions of those areas fall within high fire threat districts, state earthquake fault zones and seismic hazard zones. In various parts of the county, alternatives to the landline services that AT&T guarantees as carrier of last resort are nonexistent, unreliable or costly, county employees said.

AT&T has argued the carrier of last resort designation made sense in a monopolistic environment decades ago, but there’s now robust competition as a variety of providers are deploying broadband networks. The company argues copper landline service is outdated and expensive to maintain.

Assemblymember McKinnor, who introduced AB 2797, said her bill sought to reflect the shift away from landlines to cell phones over the last several decades and that California’s emergency communications systems likewise need to modernize.

“I feel strongly the Legislature needs to take leadership on this policy issue. I appreciate the feedback and solutions offered by many of the parties to move this forward. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to reach an agreement this year,” McKinnor told San José Spotlight. “We will continue to work on this issue with stakeholders to get it right for our constituents.”

The utilities commission denied AT&T’s request in late June after an administrative law judge called the proposal “fatally flawed.” Now the commission will begin studying ways to change the rules around designating companies as carriers of last resort, with initial public comments due by Sept. 30.

County officials — who along with thousands of Bay Area residents this year opposed AT&T’s request — were unavailable for comment.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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