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In Kentucky, Rural Access to Basic Phone Service Threatened by Telcom-Backed Bill

Should the phone company be required to offer basic phone service to a state’s rural residents? That’s the question currently being considered by a committee in Kentucky’s State Senate.

The National Rural Assembly released a letter this week expressing concerns about the bill, SB 135, arguing that it “threatens access to what most consider a basic lifeline, including 911-emergency service, for Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens.”

The bill, currently being considered by Kentucky’s Standing Committee on Economic Development, Tourism, and Labor, would eliminate so-called “carrier of last resort” (COLR) rules, which would mean telephone companies could stop offering voice telephone service if theyfound it to be too expensive or technically difficult.  But without access to telephone service, individuals do not have access to emergency services like 911, let alone the opportunity to run a business, get a job, or get an education.  There are no substitutes:  wireless services are still not adequately deployed in rural America, and high speed broadband Internet is not deployed where traditional landline telephone service is lacking.

These proposals have been rejected on a national level.  Major telephone companies asked the Federal Communications Commission to exempt them from these regulations last November, and the FCC declined.  In particular, the FCC noted that these companies receive state and federal subsidies to provide service in rural areas.  Kentucky received over $100 million in federal rural universal service dollars in 2010, and AT&T received almost $500 million nationwide, while Windstream received over $100 million nationwide, according to the most recent FCC data.  In the state of Kentucky, according to FCC data, these companies received the following federal dollars subsidizing rural telephone service in 2011 alone:

  • AT&T received over $16.5 million
  • Windstream received over $10 million
  • Cincinnati Bell received $.75 million

Almost 50 counties in Kentucky rely on AT&T and more than 25 rely on Windstream to provide telephone service. Removing the Public Service Commission’s authority over these companies would leave Kentuckians with no guarantees for access to a basic, and essential, utility.

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