A landline phone
AT&T is still lobbying for a new bill to end its minimum landline responsibilities. Photo courtesy of Dan Dennis.

After public outcry across the Bay Area, state regulators this week barred AT&T from pulling out of a crucial lifeline for hard-to-reach residents in remote pockets of Santa Clara County: basic landline services.

But on the eve of the California Public Utilities Commission’s Thursday decision, a state law proposal about horse racing was gutted and amended to legislation that would give the telecommunications giant another way to phase out its statewide landline duty. The new Assembly Bill 2797 would relieve telephone carriers from their “carrier of last resort” designation if they submit a notice showing a lack of basic customers or that alternative carrier services are available in a given area.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to oppose AB 2797, which connectivity advocates have slammed as an attempt to get around state regulators. The disconnect could leave county residents in rural parts of South County, Santa Cruz Mountains, Diablo Range and San Jose in the dark during natural disasters.

“It would essentially relieve AT&T of its carrier obligations by circumventing the process that the California Public Utilities Commission has in place,” Deputy County Executive David Campos told San José Spotlight. “Many county residents live in areas where mobile phone and internet service is nonexistent, so the idea there would no longer be landlines in these areas means that these residents would not have access to safe, reliable and affordable phone service. These are areas more prone to disasters like wildfires and earthquakes.”

The above map shows the portions of Santa Clara County where AT&T was seeking to withdraw landline services (shaded in blue). Violet shaded sections represent the territory where AT&T California may seek to withdraw from as a carrier of last resort in the future. Courtesy of Santa Clara County.

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5,000 letters to the utilities commission from members of the public who mostly opposed the request, which would have withdrawn minimum service from areas across Silicon Valley. 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 the carrier of last resort are nonexistent, unreliable or costly, county employees said.

The issue is also drawing yet another battle line in the contentious race for Congressional District 16.

“I urge @Evan_Low to vote no on AB 2797. Releasing AT&T of its obligation as the ‘Carrier of Last Resort’ would strand thousands of residents who need landlines to contact emergency services during natural disasters, when their lives are most in peril,” reads a tweet from former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo directed at his opponent, state Assemblymember Evan Low.

In 2016, Low pushed an Assembly bill that would have allowed AT&T to phase out landline service. Critics called the bill an attempt to relieve the company of regulatory monopoly checks.

Low said he supports modernizing California’s telecommunications infrastructure but he won’t support Assemblymember Tina McKinnor’s bill in its current form.

“I cannot support legislation that would cease landline service or change ‘Carrier of Last Resort’ obligations without being confident that rural areas can still quickly reach emergency services during storms and disasters,” Low told San José Spotlight. “I will therefore vote against Assembly Bill 2797 if it remains in its current form, in order to protect rural access to emergency phone service.”

AT&T — which is publicly supporting the bill — 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.

“No customer will be left without voice and 911 services,” AT&T California President Marc Blakeman told San José Spotlight. “We are focused on AB 2797, which includes important protections, safeguards and outreach for consumers and does not impact our customers in rural locations. We are fully committed to keeping our customers connected while we work with state leaders on policies that create a thoughtful transition that brings modern communications to all Californians.”

McKinnor said her bill merely seeks to modernize telecommunications in California.

“We’re just trying to set up for the future. It’s a framework so California can make the necessary transition from obsolete technology to modern technology that meets the future needs of all California customers,” McKinnor told San José Spotlight.

The bill would require AT&T — in backing out of its duty — to provide education to affected customers and “explain the benefits and advantages of transitioning to modern networks and services.” It would also require the company to develop an “equity plan” to support vulnerable communities, notify customers of the alternative voice service options available in their area and provide education on emergency preparedness for customers in high fire threat areas, including information on backup power resources.

McKinnor called those provisions “safeguards” against leaving residents in the dark and referred to numbers from AT&T showing that landline customers have dropped substantially, down to the 600,000s.

Affordable connectivity advocates like Regina Costa don’t buy it.

“They have the ability right now to put fiber optic into their network and they have chosen not to. So what does that say?” Costa, telecom policy director for the Oakland-based utility reform group TURN, told San José Spotlight. “In the era of climate change there are going to be more and more problems and that includes fires. If you are in an area that doesn’t have a reliable alternative, which is much of California, and we’re hit by an earthquake or have fires — you cannot rely on being able to call 911 to contact family, friends to let them know you’re okay.”

Costa called the bill “cynical.”

“It’s a greedy bill and it puts Californians in jeopardy,” Costa said. “It would be a public safety catastrophe.”

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

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply