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Senate panel answers call for telecom reform, sends ‘AT&T bill’ to full Senate for review

A bill to reform telecommunication regulations to reflect the declining use of landlines in favor of new technologies has passed the Senate Committee on State and Local Government.

Known as Senate Bill 3, the legislation would remove requirements that telephone companies offer basic landline service to everyone so the money used to maintain that old technology can be used to increase Internet and mobile phone access, said Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville. He sponsored the bill along with Majority Floor Leader Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.

Sen. Paul Hornback (Photo from LRC Public Information)

Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, who co-sponsored the telecom bill with Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, presents the legislation to the Senate Committee on State and Local Government. (Photo from LRC Public Information)

AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris testified at the committee hearing in support of the legislation, often referred to as the AT&T bill.

“I appreciate the opportunity to be here today to address the continuing need to begin modernizing Kentucky’s communications laws,” he said. “As you know, we have been discussing this need for several years now. The result of those discussions is the bill that you have before you today.”

Harris said more than 80 percent of all Kentucky voice connections are over something other than traditional landlines.

“Even more Kentuckians want to make this transition but they cannot because every day investment in the new technologies Kentuckians want and need is passing us on the way to neighboring states that already have modernized their laws,” he said. “We are already behind. We are falling further behind every day and we will continue falling further behind until we encourage this investment to come to Kentucky by modernizing our laws.”

Harris said SB 3 reflects “serious compromise” on all sides of the issue and encourages investment in much needed technology while protecting customer rights.

Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, and Sen. Stan Humphries, R-Cadiz, asked whether everyone would be guaranteed phone access under SB 3.

“First, if you live in a rural area and have a traditional phone line you can keep it,” Harris said. “If you live in an urban area you also have significant layers of protection in this bill. Competition in urban areas is vibrant.”

He said legislation much more comprehensive than SB 3 has been passed in 17 of the other 20 states where AT&T operates as a landline carrier, and no person in an urban or rural area has lost a landline.

The Federal Communications Commission recently made clear that companies like AT&T cannot stop offering legacy voice service in urban or rural areas, without the FCC’s permission, Harris said.

“In other words, when this bill … passes both urban and rural customers remain protected,” he said.

Tom Fitzgerald, director of the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Kentucky Resources Council, testified against BB 3. He urged senators to defer action on SB 3 until the FCC finalizes regulations that would ensure the protection of the reliability, affordability and nondiscriminatory access to telecommunications during the transition to Internet communications.

“Today’s law, as we sit here, assures that all Kentuckians, rural and urban, have access to basic local exchange service which is defined by statute to be 911 and traditional operator assistance,” Fitzgerald said. “There is nothing in this bill that will help to bridge the digital divide that exists between urban and rural Kentucky in terms of high speed Internet broadband access. I don’t know why we would want to remove these protections in state law until the FCC finishes its job … .”

Harris said telecommunication companies just want to meet customer demands for Internet and mobile service and the current regulatory structure stifles innovation. He said every month 8,000 Kentuckians switch to new technologies from traditional landlines.

SB 3 now returns to the full Senate for consideration where it has already received two readings.

From Legislative Research Commission

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