The Post Bulletin posted a letter to the editor from Senators Erik Simonson and Sheldon Johnson
AT&T, Comcast, and the Minnesota Cable Communications Association are coming for your consumer rights as local phone customers.
Be afraid. Be very afraid — especially if you live in Greater Minnesota.
These companies are asking the Minnesota Legislature to completely deregulate local phone service if it’s provided by a new technology — Voice-over-Internet Protocol (or VoIP). They claim they shouldn’t have to follow any rules at all because they’re providing phone service using this more modern technology.
But don’t let them fool you. You don’t even need an Internet connection for calls to travel over VoIP technology. Basically, VoIP is just a method of getting calls from one place to another. To the consumer, the phone call is the same if it travels by VoIP, copper, fiber, carrier pigeon, or two tin cans and a string.
And if you’re a consumer, you couldn’t care less how the call gets to its destination, but you do care that calls to 911, your doctor, your families, your friends are reliably completed. You care if the company drags its feet on installing your new phone or if you have service problems and the company doesn’t fix them. You care if you go on vacation and perhaps the bill is late, you’ll still have a phone when you get home. And you care if you get bogus charges on your bill, you have recourse if the company refuses to refund them.
If AT&T, Comcast and the other cable companies get their way this year at the Legislature, all those basic protections will vanish in a heartbeat. Immediately, consumers whose telephone company sends your calls in whole or in part using VoIP technology will lose those protections.
It would be disastrous for consumers if this bill became law, especially for those who live in Greater Minnesota, where the local phone company is the only reliable provider they have.
First, under the bill there will no longer be a right to have phone service. It is expensive and unprofitable to serve rural customers and maintain infrastructure. Companies will invest their money in densely populated, more profitable urban areas and disinvest in maintenance of the network in rural, more expensive-to-serve, less profitable areas. Rural consumers will experience decreasing service quality and more outages as the system is allowed to deteriorate and resources are moved elsewhere.
Second, existing protections against charging exorbitant connection or reconnection charges would be gone. If the bill becomes law, phone companies can shut you off for no reason even if you always pay their bill on time or without notice if you are late. Companies can shut off customers simply because they are too expensive to serve and not sufficiently profitable. Who are these customers? They are older Minnesotans, people with disabilities, people on fixed incomes, and people who live in Greater Minnesota.
Third, AT&T and Comcast tell legislators that deregulation will produce more competition, lower prices, better service, more jobs, and broadband for everyone. Beware of would-be deregulated telecommunications companies bearing “gifts.”
Broadband is already deregulated â€“ and there has been no investment. The Legislature has ponied up $50 million over the last two years (and more is proposed this session) to give to our cities to bring broadband to Greater Minnesota. If there was money to be made private sector money would be flowing.
Every part of their rationale is wrong. There isn’t a single legislator who represents rural Minnesota communities and citizens who should be supporting this bill.