Is the Home Phone a Thing of the Past?

Like many rural residents I live in the hills at the end of a gravel road; in the hills where cell phones don’t work.

If you live in a rural area you might have to use a house phone (land line) to field calls. But that trusty old phone line might not be there when a new state law takes effect.

Last week the Legislature passed a bill to deregulate phone companies. The bill makes widespread changes in the rules phone companies follow and the fees they charge each other for access to phone lines.

During debate one of the bill’s sponsors called the home phone a thing of the past.

“The days of land lines are gone,” said Senator Zipperer from the 33rd District. “We are in the age of high speed internet and wireless.”

The same day the La Crosse Tribune editorialized, “But some cannot switch to something that does not exist - guaranteed wireless coverage. There are many parts of the state - particularly in the 7 Rivers Region - that do not have wireless coverage or don’t have cable because of geographical challenges. If the landline plug is pulled, how are they going to stay in touch?”

AT&T and the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association worked to write the bill. The deregulation bill they wrote is part of a national effort to change the way telephone companies operate.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) is the state agency charged with overseeing utilities. Under the new law the PSC is limited only to refereeing disputes between companies. They would no longer protect phone consumers.

Wisconsin has some of the strongest telephone consumer protection laws in the country. Companies cannot dramatically raise prices.  You can get complaints about quality and service resolved. Your current telephone company is required to provide a land line if no other company will. The new deregulation law takes this all away.

AARP wrote legislators, “While there has been deregulation ... {in other states} those changes have not gone so far as to deny seniors of their basic right to phone service which in many cases endangers their safety and access to emergency help; strips them of their consumer protections and oversight on rate setting.”

I tried to change the bill. I offered amendments to require phone companies to serve customers if no other company was available; to limit increases in basic phone service to $2.00 in a calendar year and to stop a telephone company from deliberately slowing down the speed of the phone transmission. I also offered amendments to protect the quality and efficiency of service; to require a phone company to actually deliver what the customer agreed to buy and to encourage rural access to broadband.

Access to high speed internet for rural customers is a concern of my constituents. Known as ‘broadband” this fast service can help our local companies be competitive. Rural residents often use a dial up connection or satellite service. This service can be very slow and unreliable.

The PSC has been working to map the state to find the gaps in high speed internet coverage. That work will grind to a halt under the new phone deregulation law. Companies had been required to complete surveys on their coverage areas. Cable, phone and internet companies no longer must follow reporting rules. I attempted to amend the bill to require the simple completion of the necessary surveys and a report to the Legislature.

Every amendment I introduced was defeated on the Senate floor. All but one was defeated on a partisan vote.

I have yet to understand why bringing broadband to western Wisconsin is a partisan issue. Or why keeping high quality phone service to rural customers cannot be part of the future of telecommunications.