Last week I posted Duluth News Tribune’s letter from Attorney General Keith Ellison asking Minnesota Senators to keep phone companies’ obligation to serve, which means consumers would be protected from telephone companies cutting the cord on their landlines. This week, the Duluth News Tribune posts a response from Dana Bailey, director of state legislative affairs for CenturyLink/Lumen…
The May 17 “Statewide View” commentary in the News Tribune, headlined, “Bill threatens Minnesotans’ access to phone service,” was out of step with how people communicate today.
The commentary suggested Minnesota continue to regulate voice telephone service as it did in the 1980s when touch-tone phones were new, voice service was a monopoly, and rates were set by regulators. Back then, those rates were set to enable a provider to recover the costs of providing service.
But that’s not the case in 2021. Today, that landline business model no longer exists — while many of the regulations from that era still do.
What really threatens landline telephone service today is technology. In the year 2000, CenturyLink had 2 million access lines in Minnesota. Today, approximately 85% of those lines have disappeared, and another 10% are lost each year. Even in 2020, a year when a home connection was so vital, consumers continued to drop their copper voice line in favor of other technologies at a double-digit pace. The CDC keeps track of this kind of data, and its research shows that just 4.4% of Minnesotans today rely solely on a landline phone.
This is not a rural or urban issue, as the commentary suggested. The reduction in landline voice service is everywhere in Minnesota, whether it is the Iron Range, Bemidji, Duluth, Rochester, the Twin Cities, or even the smallest market in Minnesota we serve.
Nor is this a safety issue, as the commentary also suggested. A change would not take away voice service or emergency-calling services, and it is worth noting that today 85% of Minnesota calls to 911 come from cellular or VoIP phones — largely unregulated by the state.
To ignore these trends and continue with a 1980s-era approach, requiring investments in a copper network that consumers are abandoning, is not good for Minnesota. Minnesotans want more investment in fiber-optic broadband, and that cannot occur when limited resources are being diverted into uneconomic copper-network investments.
Finally, the commentary failed to mention that if the legislation passed, a telecommunications provider would still need the approval of the Federal Communications Commission, under its formal process, before it could stop offering service. The federal process is something that more than 25 states rely on today, and it serves consumers in those states well.
Early in the legislative process we reached out to Minnesota regulators to have a dialogue about how to navigate issues like this and transition from copper to fiber. It is our hope we can restart those conversations in the months ahead.