Advocacy groups, AT&T fight over Conn. legislation

Advocacy groups vs. AT&T over Conn. cuts to rules in changing telecommunications landscape

Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- Advocacy groups and a dominant telecommunications company are fighting over Connecticut legislation that would relax regulations to reflect major shifts from landlines to cellphones and cable phone service.

AT&T, which is regulated by the state, is backing a proposal that would end some regulations it says make it difficult to compete with unregulated cellphone and cable company telephone providers. Among numerous provisions, legislation would reduce auditing requirements and limit some regulatory oversight. Verizon, faulting Connecticut rules as "unnecessary and burdensome requirements," and other businesses and business advocacy groups also support the legislation.

The legislature's Energy and Technology Committee has voted 20-4 to approve the bill, which would change rules dating to when AT&T was a monopoly that faced little competition. The measure is waiting for a vote, if one ultimately is scheduled, in the House of Representatives.

Labor and consumer groups say the legislation would allow AT&T to cancel services in unprofitable areas, putting service at risk for senior citizens, rural residents and businesses that use landline phones.

The state Office of Consumer Counsel opposes the legislation, telling lawmakers in testimony that phone companies did a poor job restoring telephone service following several storms in the past few years and need to be regulated.

AT&T says that since Connecticut opened local phone markets to competition in 1994, traditional landline phone use has plummeted to just 28 percent of homes as numerous competitors capture cellphone business.

"We're continuing to see that deterioration, but we're regulated as a monopoly," said John Emra, a lobbyist for AT&T. "We're going to take a measured approach to regulatory reform."

Groups such as the Communications Workers of America, which represents 4,800 AT&T workers in Connecticut, and the Connecticut Working Families Party, say the legislation would allow the telecommunications company to end service for as many as 1.3 million customers who rely on landline phones. The state Office of Consumer Counsel calls landline phone service an "essential public utility."

The legislation would eliminate annual auditing that AT&T says is redundant, but that opponents say would remove protections against shell companies established in other states to avoid taxes.

One provision would repeal a minimum rate that a telephone company charges another telecommunications company for a network service plus other costs. AT&T says such a rate prevents it from competing for some business because competitors offer their services at prices below what AT&T charges.

The legislation also allows AT&T to exempt itself from requirements to file with state regulators a detailed description of rates, terms and conditions of phone service. AT&T says the rule is a "vestige of the monopoly era" no longer needed because it spells out terms of phone service with its customers.

And AT&T also would be permitted to withdraw service from customers after giving 60 days' notice to state regulators and at least 30 days' notice to affected customers. Currently, it's required to ask state regulators for permission to stop providing service.

Bill Henderson, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1298, which has fought AT&T over job cuts, called the legislation a "deregulation bill."

"If anything we need more regulation, not less regulation, to protect the consumers," he said.

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