The commonwealth last deregulated telephone services in 2006. Now, another effort, prompted by the popularity of cell phones and wireless access to the internet, is underway. However, opposition from rural residents who worry they’ll lose access to reliable land lines has left the measure in limbo. Phone companies like A-T-and-T promise they’ll improve cell phone and internet service in rural Kentucky if they can back away from traditional phone services.
The companies want the legislature to ease up on rules that require them to provide land-lines to most residences. Such service is important to people represented by Jim Kimbro with the American Association of Retired Persons. When help’s needed, Kimbro says they want a phone they can rely upon.
“I want to say though, on behalf of our members, we want to keep land lines. Land lines are critically important for us,” said Kimbro.
Critics say cell service in the mountains and valleys of eastern Kentucky is simply too spotty. If the law changes, witnesses during a two-hour legislative hearing wondered whether they would still get land line phone service.
A bill before the house could allow phone companies to abandon landlines, if they can provide reliable cell phone service and easy access to the internet. Tom Fitzgerald with Kentucky Environmental Resources helped draft the bill’s revisions.
“We want to make sure that if you are providing alternative service, it really is comparable to what people have now, which is highly reliable land line service that has a lot of functionalities,” added Fitzgerald.
Someday, Fitzgerald says cable television and wireless companies might be able to offer reliable wireless and cable communications, but currently neither has the same capabilities as landlines.
However, Patrick Turner, who represents A-T-and-T argues they’ve had good success providing reliable communications in other states.
“You’ve been hearing that people will lose service. It has not happened in any other state that has adopted these type of regulations,” said Turner.
During the last three years, Turner told lawmakers A-T-and-T has invested 650 million dollars in Kentucky’s telecommunication infrastructure. And, during the next three, he says there are plans to spend at least 600-million dollars more.
"No company has an unlimited pot of funds to invest. That is just simple math. Where does the investment go? It goes where it is treated best,” added Turner.
More than one speaker talked about moving the state forward through improved technology. Hal Good is President of the Kentucky Association of Economic Development.
“Many states, as its been said earlier, including our neighbors, have already updated their laws, and we can’t fall behind in the economic development race with our competitors,” said Good.
The testimony also included comments from two telephone customers in Franklin County. Both live in rural areas and both said they have experienced telecommunication problems at their homes. Nancy Roake says the landline problems at her farm date back 25 years.
“Back in 94 when we had that 18 inches of snow, our land line was so messed up that it dialed 9-1-1 and the state police came up, to see if we were okay. And it did it on its own,” said Roake.
Another skeptic is Pike County Representative Leslie Combs, who’s heard of similar problems in her Appalachian community. Combs maintains some of her constituents have already waited too long for adequate phone service.
“You’re right when they roll out those maps and show you what they’re going to do, yeah there’s a lot of hope there. There’s a lot of excitement there. The question is ‘Are they gonna do what they say they’re gonna do,” explained Combs.
Long time lawmaker and House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark had even stronger criticisms. In backing away from traditional landline, Clark believes the corporate giant has tried to steamroll the state’s legislature.
“But, I’m very disappointed, very disappointed that the heavy hand that A-T and T has taken with the Kentucky General Assembly. That may work in other states, but it really rears my back up,” said Clark.
The telecommunications reform bill, already approved in the Senate, faces an uncertain future in the House. Still, Committee Chair Keith Hall says a vote could still come this session.
“We’re continuing to chew it and talk about it, if we want to call it on the floor. We want to get the committee members together we can. That’s an option. Another option is let her lay dead on the floor and do nothing,” said Hall.
With just a few days left in the session, time is very short. While some last minute legislation could still be considered, most of the general assembly’s time will be spent ironing out differences in bills already passed by both houses. Then, Tuesday, lawmakers take a ten-day recess, so the governor can consider their handiwork.