Telecoms quietly waging war on the right to a phone

For many decades, the local telephone company has been required to provide telephone service to all consumers, a right enshrined in the universal service obligation. That means that even if people live in remote rural areas, or low-income inner cities, the phone companies must provide service - and the cost of that service is paid by a slight increase on phone bills.

But now, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, AT&T and Verizon are waging a ferocious lobbying campaign at the state level to end universal service - and no one is paying attention. Johnston wrote in An end to phones in every home?:

"The new rules AT&T and Verizon drafted would enhance profits by letting them serve only the customers they want. Their focus, and that of smaller phone companies that have the same universal service obligation, is on well-populated areas where people can afford profitable packages that combine telephone, Internet and cable television."

Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin have dumped universal service requirements and in California, according to consumer group Utility Rate Network, AT&T has mobilized 120 lobbyists in Sacramento to pass the same repeal.

Why are we not aware? Says Johnston, "State capitals are seeing intense lobbying to end universal service obligations but with little public awareness due to the dwindling ranks of statehouse reporters." In other words, the growth of corporate power, demands for increased profits and lack of accountability is not only eroding our rights and safety net, but even out ability to know about it.

The telecoms say that landlines are outmoded, that cellphone services are an alternative, and that the market will settle all disputes. But Johnson notes that many rural areas still lie outside viable cellphone coverage, and that other alternatives such as satellite, are unaffordable for millions. Moreover, new technology, like wireless or fiber optics, are largely unregulated. Johnston cites an example in New Jersey when Verizon simply disregarded the wishes of potential FiOS subscribers, telling Johnston "the state Board of Public Utilities no longer has authority to resolve complaints over FiOS."

Despite the well-funded push to eliminate the universal service obligation, though, recently two coalition efforts of labor, consumers, and AARP succeeded in defeating industry deregulation efforts. Despite using 36 lobbyists in Kentucky, AT&T lost its latest attempt to end regulation. And a cable/Verizon effort to ban regulation of voice over Internet telephone service in New York also lost.

The right to fair, regulated phone service can be retained, but first the public needs to know that the their rights are under attack.

An end to phones in every home? (Reuters, Mar. 28, 2012)