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While Some States Debate 21st Century Internet, Others Consider Returning to 19th Century

A rash of backward thinking appears to be taking hold in a number of states that might be better spending their time considering how to create modern technology jobs and skills at home. Some states are considering how best to deploy modern high-speed Internet to ensure their local economies and residents are ready to compete in the global marketplace. But in other states, legislators are debating whether telephone service should be offered at all - leaving many observers wondering whether they would prefer to live in the 19th century, before Alexander Graham Bell's invention became ubiquitous.

Legislators in Kentucky wisely scrapped a bill last week once they heard loud and clear from its citizens that telephone service is not optional - particularly in rural areas where mobile services and high speed broadband are at best unreliable, and at worst nonexistent. Able and fast-acting leadership by the Kentucky Resources Council , the Kentucky AARP, and National Rural Assembly brought much-needed attention to this blast to the past. As PSN has pointed out, AT&T and other phone companies received over $27 million last year to provide this service in Kentucky alone.

Even as Kentucky realized that it was a bit hasty to think that rural Kentuckians could communicate with each other relying solely on the U.S. Postal service, Ohio and Mississippi are considering picking up where Kentucky left off.

While Kentucky quickly fought off their bill, Mississippi has been considering a similar proposal since earlier in the session. HB 825 passed the House 83 to 35 and was sent to the Senate on Monday, just in time for the crossover deadline, although a similar measure originally died in a Senate committee. Fortunately, Mississippi benefits from the advocacy of a bipartisan pair of state regulators who are outspoken against the AT&T-sponsored bill - Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Nettleton Democrat, and Southern District Commissioner Leonard Betz, a Gulf Coast Republican. "I think the rural customers should have the right to have a phone line, period," Presley told the Associated Press. The Mississippi AARP has strongly opposed the bill, explaining that it will "abandon" seniors and people in rural areas.

Ohio's Senate passed SB 271 in February which takes a similar approach - removing the basic obligation to serve that has been required of all "carriers of last resort" since the earliest days of telephone regulation. The plain-English version of this rule is that if a customer calls the telephone company, he or she can get a phone if you pay for it. Without carriers of last resort, there might be parts of Ohio with no telephone service - and the places most likely to lose service, expensive to serve rural areas, are also the most likely not to have any alternatives, such as mobile phone service or high speed Internet. The Ohio Consumers Council has expressed its concern with the bill, as well as AARP Ohio. The Ohio bill builds on the massive deregulation from last year, but without the protections in last year's SB 162 and without waiting for the legislative report evaluating that bill's impact. Ohio's bill is now before the House of Representatives.

Arguments that alternate technologies can replace traditional telephone service leave rural advocates shaking their heads. Edyael Casaperalta of the Center for Rural Strategies, and coordinator of the Rural Broadband Policy Group, wonders, "How are these companies going to provide wireless Internet to a customer in a remote area when it requires a landline? Let's not forget many areas do not have access to wireless or other, newer technologies. This is why communities not only need access to traditional phone service, but need the chance to create their own high speed broadband networks where the private sector will not deploy it."

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This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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