Duluth News Tribune posts a letter from Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Grace Arnold about recent proposed changes that would remove the a clause in legislation that ensures that everyone has access to a landline telephone…
A bill supported by the majority in the Minnesota Senate, called the “energy omnibus bill,” includes a three-sentence change that would remove critical consumer protections that have long ensured that all Minnesotans have access to basic phone service. Importantly, this basic service includes landlines, which people and small businesses in some parts of Minnesota must rely on to meet their basic needs and get ahead.
This is especially true in northern and western Minnesota, where mobile and wireless services can be spotty or unavailable. If the Senate removes these protections, people and businesses across Minnesota who rely the most on landline service would be hit hard. Senior citizens, who also rely on landlines more than others, would be hit hard, too.
So what are these important protections? Minnesota has long had an “obligation to serve” requirement for phone companies, which is a bedrock requirement of telephone regulation. This ensures that all Minnesotans currently have access to this basic communication necessity. But the Senate’s proposal would eliminate those protections from state law. This means phone companies could stop serving sparsely populated areas, which are less profitable to them, because there would be no obligation under the law to serve those areas anymore.
Despite the technology revolution of cell phones and high-speed internet, also known as broadband, not every part of the state has access to reliable cell phone coverage or broadband.
Close to 1 million Minnesota customers — families and businesses both — depend on traditional landline phones. Cities use landline phone infrastructure to reach city residents and enable basic services like fire alarms and meter reading. Small businesses need landlines to sell goods and services and create jobs. There are 18 counties in Minnesota where more than 60% of households have landline service. Some people have no way to get through to 911 without a landline. For older Minnesotans and those with medical conditions, their health can depend on a reliable phone line. If you have a heart attack, driving 15 minutes to get to a place where your cell phone works is not an option.
Proponents of the Senate majority’s bill make vague promises that eliminating the “obligation to serve” would enable broadband development. We’re skeptical, and you should be, too. We all support broadband deployment across Minnesota. This bill does nothing to encourage investment in broadband, nor does it invest in broadband infrastructure. It simply makes it easier for companies to stop providing telephone service to customers who cost them more to serve.
Movement away from required landlines has been happening for at least 8 years. I understand that providers are in a difficult position. Many consumers have “cut the cord” choosing to use their cell phone as their primary phone. But that option is not available to everyone for the reasons outlined above and the phone is considered a lifeline; we can’t simply take it away without risking people losing access for critical communication.