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The End of Rural Landlines?

Recent coverage by CBS News on Channel 13 in Sacramento, California documented how AT&T had cut off landline telephone from 80-year-old Patricia Pereira in Camp Seco. She called at the beginning of 2023 to ask if landline service could be transferred from a neighboring home to hers. Instead of transferring the service, AT&T cut the copper lines dead on both properties. She tried a cellphone, but she lives in a dead zone and barely receives cellular signals. She is now cut off from 911 and other essential services.

AT&T told CBS13 “Our application seeks approval from the CPUC to remove outdated regulations in California and to help the limited remaining landline consumers transition to modern, alternative services to replace their current outdated ones. All AT&T California customers will continue to receive their traditional landline services until an alternative service becomes available by AT&T or another provider.”

That’s obviously not true since many rural customers are in the same position as Pereira, where cellular service doesn’t work well, or at all, in many rural places in the country. In this case, the company cut off Pereira long before the company applied to cut copper dead in her area.

This is happening in rural AT&T areas across the country. AT&T is walking away from rural copper facilities that provide landline telephone and DSL broadband.

I’m sure that the rural AT&T copper networks are old and in poor condition. It has been inevitable that copper technology will eventually come to an end. But that’s not the whole story. Copper networks maintained by smaller independent telephone companies are still in workable condition because these companies have been doing the needed maintenance over the years. AT&T stopped doing routine maintenance on rural networks decades ago, and the company’s neglect has accelerated the death of the copper networks.

State regulatory commissions have not been doing their job. AT&T and other telephone companies have been operating under regulations that include the concept of carrier-of-last-resort, which means that telephone companies are obligated to provide customers with voice service. It sounds like a noble sentiment that AT&T wants to make sure that customers have an alternate service before killing copper—which would be cellular coverage in rural areas. However, the company’s treatment of Pereira shows that it is just a statement for public consumption, not the truth.

If the California Public Service Commission was enforcing the carrier-of-last-resort rules, it would make sure that customers have cell coverage at home before allowing AT&T to walk away from the copper. If that means AT&T would have to build new cell towers, so be it.

One of the oddest things about the TV coverage is that the newscaster ended the segment by parroting AT&T’s position by saying, “All AT&T California customers will continue to receive their traditional landline service until an alternate service is available by AT&T or another provider.” This was said after a segment that shows that AT&T is already walking away from a customer and without first getting permission from the CPUC.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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