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Consumer advocates gear up for fight over landline phones

Consumer advocates say they’re gearing up for a fight with telecom companies next year over the availability of landline phone service in Illinois.

Citizens Utility Board executive director David Kolata said the Illinois Telecommunications Act will expire in 2015, and that could help trigger a renewed push by companies like AT&T and Frontier for fewer regulations. But AT&T Illinois President Paul La Schiazza said Illinois “would remain a rotary dial state in a broadband and wireless world” if the Citizens Utility Board gets its way.

Kolata said he’s worried telecom companies will try to do away with the “obligation to serve” mandate that requires them to offer home phone service throughout Illinois, as well as low-cost programs like AT&T’s “Consumer’s Choice” plan created under a legal settlement with the Citizens Utility Board.

He acknowledged the telecom companies’ previous efforts to do so got nowhere in Springfield.

“Every time that ‘Big Telecom’ gears up for a fight, we take it very seriously,” Kolata said, “and we hope that we’re able to stop it.”

Eric Barie, senior vice president of Illinois for Frontier Communications, said he’s not aware of any legislative push “that would eliminate reliable and affordable voice communications service for our customers across Illinois.” Rather, he expects there will be an effort to upgrade Illinois’ telecommunication infrastructure.

“Frontier is investing in upgrading its infrastructure in Illinois,” Barie said, “and the state’s legacy telecommunication law needs to be updated to permit new, digital services to be offered by incumbent telecommunication carriers.”

La Schiazza said the debate is not about taking services away, but rather delivering more modern services.

“The state’s telecommunications laws expire in 2015 and state policymakers have a choice,” La Schiazza said in a statement. “Join other states in preparing for the digital future, or cling to outdated policies designed for 100-year-old technology.”

AARP spokesman Gerardo Cardenas joined Kolata at a news conference Tuesday and announced the results of a survey taken over the summer of likely voters who are 50 and older. Nearly half of the people who took the survey — 48 percent — said they use traditional phone service “nearly always” or “most of the time.” Another 64 percent said they wanted the governor to “protect reliable, affordable landline service in Illinois.”

Kolata said there are 1.3 million residential landlines in place across Illinois. He and Cardenas said the service is preferred particularly by senior citizens and rural residents because of its reliability and affordability.

La Schiazza, meanwhile, said 82 percent of Illinois households in its traditional landline territory have already switched to new technologies. He also said less than 6 percent of households in that territory subscribe to AT&T’s “Consumer’s Choice” package, which offers only local calls.