Why Illinois dares not say goodbye to landline phones

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Phone giant ATT sent letters saying it would end discounts for low-income customers who want landline phones. File Photo /Robert F. Bukaty

Many people still choose traditional landline phone service as their most reliable and affordable connection to family, friends and 911, but if AT&T wins in Springfield its customers may soon have that choice stripped away. That worries a lot of people like Carol and Michele.

“I’m not against cellphones,” said Carol Kolen of Chicago, whose landline connects to her pacemaker/defibrillator. “But we can’t guarantee cellphones will work all the time for important devices like mine.” Michele Charous, also of Chicago, says her landline gives her good service on a tight income: “I have affordability, and with my landline reliability.”


With the Illinois Telecommunications Act set to expire July 1, AT&T’s legislation (Senate Bill 1381/House Bill 2691) would allow the company to end service to 1.2 million business and residential landlines once the Federal Communications Commission gives final approval. And it would axe Illinois’ best local phone deals, the “Consumer’s Choice” calling plans, which are under a state-mandated rate freeze.

Here’s why you should oppose AT&T’s plan, even if you don’t own a landline:

It poses a serious public safety concern. Plenty of people rely on landline phones — including seniors, low-income families and rural residents with bad cellphone reception. The service is their most affordable and reliable connection to 911, medical monitoring services and home security systems.

It does nothing to modernize Illinois’ telecom network. AT&T argues that current telecom policy doesn’t leave it with enough resources to modernize — despite $58 billion in profits over the last five years. But AT&T’s legislation contains no requirement that the phone giant upgrade its network.

It strips Illinois of important power. The same AT&T that is trying to reverse historic internet protections in Washington has also dismantled phone protections in 19 of 21 states where it operates. But Illinois’ Telecom Act currently gives legislators the authority to hold AT&T accountable for certain phone standards — and that could give the state leverage to win other fixes, like improving broadband speed. AT&T’s bill would destroy that opportunity, and shift any power to protect phone customers to the FCC. Why would Illinois cede that authority to Washington bureaucrats?

For today’s landline callers, other options — wireless service, Internet-based phones, and bloated “triple-play” packages from the cable company — aren’t as easy, reliable or affordable as plain old telephone service. AT&T touts “modern landlines”— the Internet phone service formerly known as “U-verse.” But that’s only available to about half of its service territory, and it requires a pricey Internet connection. (Plus, you can’t make calls during a power outage without a battery backup that you have to buy yourself.)

Wireless service may work for a lot of people, but it’s a risky option for others.  Advanced 911 — which can trace the exact location of a cellphone — won’t be fully implemented in Illinois until 2020 at the earliest. And AT&T’s recent 14-state wireless 911 outage proves that the company is not yet able to provide a satisfactory alternative for landline customers.

While AT&T dismisses landline users as a small percentage of its customer base, this debate is not about percentages, it’s about people like Michele and Carol.

Rather than let AT&T dictate the terms, Illinois should launch a more comprehensive discussion on how to create a better, pro-consumer plan for our telecom future. Please, tell your legislators to protect the Telecom Act and reject Senate Bill 1381 and House Bill 2691 by calling a special AARP Illinois Telecom Hotline, 1-844/220-5552.

Julie Vahling is associate state director of AARP Illinois. Abraham Scarr is director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group. Bryan McDaniel is director of governmental affairs for the Citizens Utility Board.

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