Hornback’s bill would loosen telecom regs

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By Todd Martin

If you are one of the ever-dwindling homes with a traditional land telephone line, you may have to start looking for an alternative.

Senate Bill 135, also referred to as the "AT&T Bill," is scheduled to come up before the Senate next week and appears to have the needed support.

Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville), the sponsor of the bill, said he has worked closely with the Public Service Commission to make sure its officials agree with the bill and that the residents of the commonwealth will continue to have adequate phone service.

The revised bill would allow phone companies, if they choose, to leave areas where they provide service as long as there are at least two available alternatives – primarily meaning voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), which is an Internet-based service that requires high-speed broadband, and cellular phone services.

The idea is the companies can use the money saved to reinvest in broadband Internet coverage and better cellular service across the commonwealth.

AT&T claims that in the past 10 years basic landline phone service has decreased 50 percent, and cellular has increased more than 300 percent.

This change would build upon the continued deregulation of phone service since the 2006 bill that allowed phone companies to opt out of basic rate regulation by the PSC.

In accordance with the 2006 bill AT&T, Cincinnati Bell and Windstream opted out of the PSC rate regulations, in turn offering a 5-year rate freeze.

That freeze ended in mid-2011, and since then AT&T has increased its basic rate by 20 percent and Cincinnati Bell by 17 percent.

Hornback said he introduced the bill after several meetings with AT&T on the subject last year.

"My first concern was with the rural communities," he said. "I wanted to make sure that they maintained not just a phone service, but adequate phone service."

After introducing it earlier this month, Hornback said he has met with several groups, including the PSC to make necessary changes.

"I got some good, honest feedback," he said.

After addressing issues of abandonment and provider of last resort, both of which he said "are not touched," Hornback said he has received approval from the PSC.

"They signed off on it yesterday [Monday]," he said. "The only group that is not fully on board yet is the AARP, and we're meeting with them Wednesday [today]."

A PSC spokesperson declined to comment on the bill because the commission has not testified in front of the Senate. The bill is scheduled to be heard Tuesday.

"We don't publicly comment until we testify in front of the Senate," said Andrew Meinykovych, director of communications for the Kentucky Public Service Commission. "But we have been working with Senator Hornback and AT&T."

Hornback said the PSC looks at phone service as a necessity, and he agrees.

"Because of nine-one-one service and emergency services, it is a necessity. We're not changing the abandonment or provider of last resort legislation," he said. "Provider of last resort is actually covered by federal law, so they're double protected in that case."

Hornback said the PSC would still have some say. The commission will be in charge of deeming whether or not cellular service is adequate enough to serve as a main phone service, if a company chooses to pull out an area.

"Out in rural areas, I know how those coverage maps work," he said. "My house is a perfect example. Both AT&T and Verizon claim to have coverage at my house, but I've had phones from both and had no coverage at my house."

Although, it's not Hornback's house that is likely to see any change.

"The changes are more likely to occur in urban areas, where they have these alternative phone opportunities," he said.

He said he also is convinced that the phone companies will reinvest these potential savings.

"If you look at a business like AT&T, they'd be foolish not to try to expand [throughout Kentucky]," he said.