By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
The world is changing and nowhere is that more evident than in the arena of communications technology.
But some lawmakers and consumer advocates fear older, rural Kentuckians may be left behind if the state doesn’t continue to regulate telephone providers to require they remain “carriers of last resort.”
In each of the past two legislative sessions, AT&T has sought legislation which would deregulate its Kentucky operations which it claims is needed to allow it to compete in the burgeoning wireless and data transmission markets. But each time, rural lawmakers, especially those in eastern Kentucky, balked because the company couldn’t guarantee basic land line services under the deregulated arrangement.
In 2013 Senate Bill 88, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, passed the Senate but then died in the House. Hornback added provisions to the 2013 bill to ease concerns about land line services to the rural and elderly — but they weren’t sufficient to overcome opposition.
Lawmakers anticipate the issue will be back in 2014 and the Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development and Tourism conducted a hearing Monday on the changes in the industry.
AT&T wasn’t present, though they were invited. Committee Chair Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, said he invited the company but, “they said they weren’t prepared and asked if they could appear at a later meeting.” Hall said AT&T will make its case at a subsequent committee meeting.
But lawmakers heard from others who said Kentucky should continue regulating at least part of the telephone industry — to ensure major companies continue to allow smaller providers to connect to their networks and to ensure rural customers aren’t denied reliable land line services.
Carolyn Ridley, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for tw telecom, a voice data and internet provider to businesses, said Kentucky should insist the Public Service Commission continue to arbitrate disputes between carriers about interconnectivity – at least until such time the Federal Communications Commission completes a study of the issue.
Larger telecommunications companies contend that newer technologies for “switching” calls, connecting the caller to the calling destination, are Internet-based and shouldn’t be regulated.
But Ridley and Tom Fitzgerald, Director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said Kentucky law already allows companies to opt out of the regulated market if they can demonstrate to the PSC that the ensuing market competition will ensure the same level of reliable, affordable service.
Fitzgerald said AT&T chose not to go that route, instead seeking new legislation.
He said wireless services can’t provide as reliable 911 services or restoration of services after disasters as land lines.
Greg Hale, general manager of Logan Telephone Cooperative, said even wireless networks depend on fiber optic networks and “wireless will never be enough” to serve all needs in all areas.
He endorsed the idea of increased reliance on wireless communications but said both “a robust wireless network plus a robust fiber network is what Kentucky needs.”
Without such a complementary system, Hale said, “residents of rural Kentucky will be left behind.”
Rep. John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, said wireless service is at times “non-existent” in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. He said when West Liberty was hit by a major tornado, even after service was restored, wireless networks simply didn’t have the capacity to handle the extra volume of calls going out of and into the area.
Hall and other lawmakers conceded the issues are complex and will require more information and understanding before they can decide how to act. Hall said they will continue to study the issue, including hearing from AT&T at future meetings.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.