OPLC Fights to Preserve Ohio Consumers’ Access to Landline Telephones

This piece was written by OPLC Staff Attorney Joe Maskovyak.

The legislature has adjourned for the 2011-12 term, and opponents of SB 271, including OPLC, can breathe a little easier knowing that SB 271 died a quiet death when this legislature adjourned for the final time.  The breathing will only be a little easier, since the powerful telecommunications (telecom) lobby is certain to find a champion to reintroduce SB 271 – the latest telecom deregulation bill – soon after the new legislature convenes in January.

SB 271 was the latest in a series of telecom dereg bills, designed to grant increasing freedom to to the phone companies, all of which have been written and supported by the industry,  ostensibly to promote “progress and investment” in Ohio.  Of course, as is often the case, the guise of “progress” comes with a price.    SB 271 essentially would allow the market (assuming there is one) to regulate the price of landline telephone service, and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) would not be able to establish any price caps on the cost of your phone rates.  Along with the end to price caps to protect consumers who could be gouged by unlimited rate increases, consumers would also see the elimination of what few consumer protections remain in the PUCO rules. Minimal protections, such as getting a phone installed within five days from the date you order and pay for services, or having the phone company reimburse you for outages if they take more than three days to repair them, would have gone away.  These are examples of regulations which phone companies apparently find too onerous and burdensome in conducting business.

SB 271 would have paved the way for landline operators to get out of the business of maintaining their existing lines.  This could lead to a host of problems.  Phone companies only had to show there was some competition but not necessarily competition to all communities.  Consequently, it is quite possible, especially in rural southeast Ohio, that a landline provider could withdraw from an area where cell phone coverage is spotty or nonexistent.  If your cable provider uses that same landline to transmit its signal, and the landline telephone provider leaves, you can also say good bye to your cable.   Alternatively, if you have cell phone coverage but no cell phone, you may be forced to buy one, even if you cannot afford to pay the cost for a new cellphone or for service, if you want to stay connected.

Finally, SB 271 would have signaled the end of Basic Local Exchange Service (BLES).  This is a no frills service that allows unlimited calling for a small flat rate for those who do not want or need more service.  Together with the end of BLES, “Lifeline” service, which allows affordable phone service for the very poor, could also have gone extinct.  This is because Lifeline is priced as a discount from BLES service.  How can one discount from something that no longer exists?

The extra time granted by the death of SB 271 should allow more time to better study a radical proposal that was rushed through the Senate and seemed to be gaining momentum before this legislative session ended.  OPLC believes there should be more time to study what would be a transformation of the telecom landscape.  In fact, the last telecom bill we saw in the legislature, SB 162, which passed in late 2010, statutorily created a study committee to report on that bill’s deregulation impacts.  A report is not due until 2014.  Sadly, the study committee has never been convened, much less begun to discharge its reporting duty.  Hopefully, there will be time for this committee to meet and report about the impacts of the last round of deregulation before we make decisions on further telephone deregulation in the next legislative session.

In the interim, however, we need stand vigilant to the reintroduction of a new telecom dereg bill similar to SB 271, which we at OPLC fully expect to occur when the legislature reconvenes in January 2013. We need to tell our legislators to tread slowly and carefully and to refuse to pass a new bill without full examining all of the possible consequences.  Consequently, we need to push our legislators to convene the SB 162 Study Committee to examine what has occurred thus far in the industry (which was the intent of the statutory creation of the committee when the last telecom bill was passed) before we take away consumers’ lifelines and/or landlines.  OPLC will be monitoring these issues in the next legislative session, and will report back with details about any new developments.

Check out OPLC’s talking points on SB 271 here.  Contact Joe Maskovyak at jmaskovyak@ohiopovertylaw.org or Mike Smalz at msmalz@ohiopovertylaw.org if you’d like more information about this or any other telecommunications deregulation issues.