By Cathy Keim
Two or three weeks ago I was asked on a phone survey if I thought that landlines were still important or if I would prefer to allow the telecommunications companies to invest in newer technology rather than continuing with outdated landline maintenance. The question seemed deliberately skewed so I assumed that the phone company was behind the survey – but I did not get a clear answer when I asked.
I had two more phone calls about phone service that culminated today in a paid phone caller requesting that I call Senator Mathias and tell him that I wanted SB577 passed. I was not prepared to call Senator Mathias with so little information, so I decided to look the bill up and see what it was about. SB577 is the Public Utilities – Telecommunications Law – Modernization sponsored by Senator Catherine Pugh of Baltimore City and cross-filed with HB1166 sponsored by Delegate Dereck Davis of Prince George’s County. The summary states:
Providing that a telephone company is not required to file with the Public Service Commission a specified tariff schedule except under specified circumstances; limiting the type of services in which a telephone company may not establish a new rate under specified circumstances; allowing a telephone company to discontinue or abandon a specified service under specified circumstances; providing that a specified prior authorization is not required for specified transactions; etc.
Since the summary didn’t reveal much, I then called Senator Pugh’s office and spoke with a very friendly staffer. She said that the purpose of the bill was threefold.
- Currently telecommunication companies cannot discontinue a service or change their rates unless they ask the Public Service Commission (PSC) each time they wish to make a change. They pay a tariff to the PSC for this service. The new bill would remove this requirement.
- Change the franchising rules so that the current provisions do not apply to any transaction between a telephone company and another entity (that is not a gas company or an electric company) if a common parent entity directly or indirectly controls more than 50% of both the telephone company and the other entity.
- Change the securities rules so that the current provisions do not apply to any transaction between a telephone company and another entity (that is not a gas company or an electric company) if a common parent entity directly or indirectly controls more than 50% of both the telephone company and the other entity.
Since her boss, Senator Pugh, is sponsoring the bill, she had a very positive opinion of the legislation.
Next I called Senator Mathias’ office and spoke with his very pleasant staffer. She said that they had been getting several phone calls asking the senator to support SB 577, but that the callers did not seem to know anything about the bill. I suppose that they had received the same phone solicitation that I had received.
She had a much less positive view of the bill. She said that the bill would allow the telecommunications companies to abandon services, limit services, and establish new rates without authorization from the PSC. She indicated that the bill was still in committee, but if it made it to the floor, she doubted that Senator Mathias would support it in its current form.
For a more detailed comparison of the current law vs. the proposed law you can go to the Fiscal and Policy Note.
This statement in the Technology section made me wonder if this referred to the dropping of copper landlines in favor of the fiber optic system.
PSC or any other State unit or a unit of local government may not restrict, through an order, a regulation, a rule, a resolution, or an ordinance or in any other manner, a telephone company’s choices to use any otherwise lawful technology or facility to provide its services. A telephone company may satisfy its statutory and regulatory obligations through the use of any lawful technology or facility of its choosing.
Articles like “How Verizon lets its copper network decay to force phone customers onto fiber. Fiber is fast, but copper is reliable – even during multi-week power outages” paint an unflattering portrait of an evil corporation that is up to no good.
The lengthy article accuses Verizon of preferring the fiber optic system because it is cheaper to maintain, but it cannot be used without electricity so it is worthless in a power outage of a week or two like those that happen due to hurricanes. The cell phones are also worthless if the cell towers are down or out of power.
This brings us back to the argument for government regulation of utilities because we are dependent upon the utilities for society to function. Our dependency on electricity, gas, and communication systems is increasing each year. Most people no longer have the ability to survive for long without electricity. We no longer have backup systems like a fireplace for heat or if we do, the large woodpile to get us through a major power outage. Without electricity you cannot pump gas at the gas station. Food doesn’t get delivered to the stores. Without electricity your phone doesn’t work unless you have an old fashioned landline.
Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group. posted a letter to the Senate Finance Committee that concluded:
Maryland’s communications networks allow its citizens to conduct business, contact loved ones, and call for help in emergency situations. These services are too vital to the economic and social health of the state to prohibit the Maryland Public Service Commission from acting to protect consumers, especially in the face of impending technological and political changes. As Maryland legislators continue to deliberate on the future of its networks, Public Interest Advocates urge the Senate Finance Committee to ensure Maryland’s communications networks serve five core values: service to all, consumer protection, network reliability, competition and interconnection, and public safety. These values have served our phone network well for decades and have created one of the most successful communications platforms in the world. Maryland must continue to defend these values and resist ill-advised deregulatory pressures to ensure that the phone network continues to be a network that Maryland residents can rely on.
From what I can tell about SB577, I would say that it is poorly written and its passage would result in a lot of confusion. I am for limited government and concerned with the excess of government regulations that make it difficult for companies to innovate. However, the potential impact on our citizenry for their defense and public safety makes me place this discussion in the “needs to be under the government oversight” category for now, particularly since this is being discussed at the state level, which is exactly where this discussion belongs.