Top consumer advocates on Tuesday united to block an expected legislative push by big telecom companies that would allow for the elimination of low-cost home phone service in Illinois, as polling conducted on behalf of AARP shows strong support for Springfield leadership to protect reliable and affordable home phones.
The poll findings were released as AARP Illinois and the Citizens Utility Board launched a “Save Our Service (SOS) Campaign” ahead of the General Assembly’s 2015 session. The Illinois Telecommunications Act is up for review, and the telecom industry is expected to renew efforts to scrap state requirements to provide access to affordable home phone service. There are more than 1 million landlines in Illinois, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), serving some of Illinois’ most vulnerable citizens.
CUB and AARP held news conferences urging Illinoisans to visit www.SaveOurPhoneService.com to send a message to legislators about this issue.
AT&T, which made $18 billion in 2013, has led the charge in Illinois for phone deregulation. Nationally, the phone industry has pushed a business model that would allow it to stop providing landline service, leaving customers with substitutes that tend to be more expensive and less reliable, such as AT&T’s computer-based U-Verse or wireless alternatives. As part of that strategy, AT&T will likely seek an end to the CUB-created Consumer’s Choice calling plans, which are Illinois’ best local phone deals.
According to the survey conducted on behalf of AARP by Hart/North Star Opinion Research, 64 percent of respondents said they wanted the governor to “protect reliable, affordable landline service in Illinois.” Almost half of the respondents — 48 percent — said they use traditional phone service nearly always or most of the time. That rose to 53 percent for Illinoisans 65-74, and up to 71 percent for older consumers. The survey, conducted in July, polled 802 Illinois residents aged 50 and older who were likely to vote in the Nov. 4 election.
Consumer advocates are concerned that a revision of the state’s Telecommunications Act would:
Scrap the “Obligation to Serve” requirement. This mandates companies provide home phone service throughout Illinois. Lifting it would mean top local phone companies, such as AT&T and Frontier, could abandon areas they deem “unprofitable.”
Abolish “Safe Harbor” calling plans. Currently, Illinois mandates that AT&T offer the no-frills “Consumer’s Choice” plans, which range from about $3 to $20 per month and were originally created by CUB under a legal settlement with AT&T. Designed to match the way most callers use the phone, these plans are under a price freeze mandated by the General Assembly and have saved Illinois consumers an estimated $10 million a year.
Forcing consumers to use computer-based or wireless substitutes as their primary home phones could subject them to higher bills and service degradation that still plague such options, including lack of service in extended power outages, checkered reception, dropped calls and high connection charges (up to $199 for computer-based phones).
For many Illinoisans, a landline is still synonymous with home phone service, particularly among older and more rural demographics. Even in households that also use mobile phones, traditional home service can be the most reliable and affordable lifeline to family, friends and vital services such as 911, home security systems and some medical monitoring devices.
Given 2014 developments in the Internet and cellphone industries, consumer advocates also are concerned about the impact of eliminating key consumer protections in the Telecom Act. Recently, Verizon agreed to pay about $64 million as part of a class action lawsuit accusing it of overcharging customers on its Family Share Plan. T-Mobile has been sued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which accused the company of making “hundreds of millions” of dollars off of fraudulent “cramming” charges added to wireless bills by unscrupulous third parties. AT&T this year entered into a $100 million settlement with federal and state officials, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, on the cramming issue — and it has been sued by the FTC for allegedly improperly slowing Internet speeds for customers.
In addition, last month the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began a rule-making process that raises concerns about how to protect residential and small-business customers, including their ability to call 911 during an extended power outage. With such concerns being addressed federally, consumer advocates said it’s premature to make a major revision to the Illinois Telecommunications Act.
NOTE: This article is from a press release on the Citizens Utility Board website.