Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 2, 2014

Access for all

Senate telecommunications bill reflects changing times

The Independent

ASHLAND — Just as it has done for the past two years, the Kentucky Senate has approved a bill aimed at spreading wireless and high-speed broadband service by allowing telecommunications companies to cut back on landline investments.

As we see it, Senate Bill 99 reflects the rapidly changing world of mass communications. While a few customers may not be able to get landline telephone service under the bill, far more should be able to get dependable cell phone and Internet  service, which is what a growing number of Kentuckians prefer. While the number of landline phone customers has declined steadily in recent years, the number of cell phone customers has increased so rapidly that Kentucky has had to create two new area codes just to be able to offer enough phone numbers to accommodate the demand.

SB 99 passed the Republican-controlled Senate Thursday by a lopsided and bipartisan 34-4 vote,  but that is nothing new. The problem is that for the past two years nearly identical bills have been approved by the Senate only to die in the House without a vote. There is a chance that could happen again this year. It’s up to House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who decides which bills come up for a vote.

Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, the bill’s primary sponsor, said his measure seeks to encourage investments by telecommunications companies to upgrade services in unpreserved rural areas, where residents want wider cell phone coverage and faster Internet service.

“Technology is moving very quickly ... all over the world,” Hornback said. “And if we don’t keep up, we’re going to be left behind.” He’s right, of course. The bill works hand-in-hand with Gov. Steve Beshear’s pledge to extend Internet service to every area of the state.

Current Kentucky law requires “carriers of last resort” to extend landline service to every home and business in the state. The measure would give telecommunications companies the freedom to provide wireless or voice over Internet services in some areas.

The bill’s supporters include AT&T, which says the measure would give it the flexibility to spread newer technology to underserved areas.

Hornback said the measure includes protections to guarantee rural residents won’t have their landline service taken away if they want to keep it. If a storm knocks out landline service, the phone company would have to restore it if requested to do so by customers, he said.

“If they have it today and they want to keep it after this bill becomes law, they can keep it,” Hornback said, in a remark that sounds eerily similar to what President Obama said would happen to people’s private health insurance under Obamacare. That, of course, proved to be inaccurate, but what Hornback is promising is accurate.

Customers giving up their landline would have a grace period to notify their phone company that they want the landline restored if they’re unhappy with their new service, Hornback said.

Under the bill, companies would have to continue providing landline services to customers with landlines in any exchange with less than 15,000 customers. The measure would give companies the flexibility to end landline services at their discretion in larger exchanges.

Stumbo, who can again kill this bill, said he wants assurances that people in rural areas won’t lose landline service if they want to keep it. He mentioned a tiny community in his  district as an example.

“Right now, the only link that people in that community have in case of an emergency, particularly the elderly people, are these landlines,” he said.

We have no doubt that is true. But the world is quickly changing, and our hope is that within a few years, every area of Kentucky will be able to get cell phone and Internet service. When it does, the “carriers of last resort” requirement becomes obsolete and unnecessary.  If SB 99 will help speed the day when all of Kentucky is onlin,e then the  House needs to follow the Senate’s lead by sending this bill to the governor for his signature.