AT&T forbidden from cutting landline services to large parts of California

Telecoms company will remain a carrier of last resort per CPUC ruling

AT&T will have to continue operating landlines in California despite its wish to cut off the less lucrative line of business, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has ruled.

The telecommunications giant is considered a carrier of last resort (COLR) in California, which means that in certain areas, AT&T is legally obligated to provide its telephone services to anyone who asks, including landlines. The COLR designation basically exists to prevent telecoms firms from withdrawing from areas entirely, leaving citizens without any access to phone networks.

Obviously, not being able to make a phone call would be isolating for anyone, but more importantly it would mean not being able to contact emergency services like 911.

On March 3 last year, AT&T sent in a request to CPUC to get its status as a COLR dropped in areas where the company argued locals had options other than its landlines, such as voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone services and mobile cellular networks operated by AT&T itself as well as Verizon and T-Mobile.

As for why AT&T no longer wants to be a COLR for nearly half of California, its argument is that maintaining all those landlines is a hindrance in transitioning to more advanced fiber optic infrastructure.

CPUC, however, was not convinced by this reasoning, and yesterday rejected [PDF] AT&T's request completely after hearing more than 5,000 public comments and conducting an in-depth analysis of AT&T's case.

One of the key factors in keeping AT&T's COLR designation was testimony from California citizens who said that without landlines, they'd have very poor connectivity. One member of the native American Pomo tribe is quoted as saying: "I covered almost 100 miles of… land while I was a tow truck driver and probably had cell service maybe 30 percent of the time."

"[My aunt] can't get cell service out where she's at because of the – because of the trees. So, there is no help for her. She's tried T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, US Cellular, none of them work."

This sentiment was shared by many other locals, who may have poor accessibility to cellular networks because of "changes in terrain, dense foliage, geographic or structural obstacles and other characteristics that limit wireless signal propagation," according to CPUC.

As AT&T is the only COLR in these areas, its withdrawal would mean insufficient coverage, and there's no guarantee another carrier would swoop in and voluntarily replace AT&T as a new COLR.

Landlines aren't preventing AT&T from investing into infrastructure, CPUC says

CPUC also took issue with the telecom firm's argument that maintaining its landlines made it more challenging to upgrade the infrastructure.

"AT&T's public arguments paint the picture that the Commission's COLR Rules require AT&T to retain outdated copper-based landline facilities that are expensive to maintain," the ruling reads, "or that AT&T needs Commission approval in order to be able to retire copper facilities and instead, invest in more modern technologies such as VoIP, wireless, and fiber. These arguments are not accurate."

CPUC said there were no restrictions on AT&T retiring old infrastructure, as long as it was replaced without service being impacted. The regulatory body also pointed out that the company had spent $150 million on fiber between Q2 and Q4 of last year, which it said doesn't exactly jive with AT&T's arguments about not having enough money because it's spending so much on landlines.

Not only did CPUC dismiss AT&T's application, it did so with prejudice with the written order prohibiting the phone company from filing a similar application for a full year.

AT&T California President Marc Blakeman responded to the ruling in a statement to The Register: "No customer will be left without voice and 911 services. We are focused on the legislation introduced in California, which includes important protections, safeguards and outreach for consumers, and does not impact our customers in rural locations."

"We are fully committed to keeping our customers connected while we work with state leaders on policies that create a thoughtful transition that brings modern communications to all Californians." ®

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