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AT&T request to California PUC could send landlines to the landfill

The State of California will decide whether landline service will go the way of other old communication technology, like this dial phone. April 3, 2024
Thomas Fudge
The State of California will decide whether landline service will go the way of other old communication technology, like this dial phone. April 3, 2024

Joshua Hart lives in Plumas County, California, on the Nevada border. It’s a mountainous, forested county the size of Delaware is home to only 20,000 people. Cellular coverage is very spotty and lots of people, like Hart, only have landlines serving their homes.

He said if AT&T abandons copper-wire landlines, he and his neighbors will suffer.

“While AT&T claims to be bridging the digital divide and working on these advanced technologies, a lot of people in urban and especially rural areas are really being left behind without alternatives,” he said.


A lot of Californians still use landlines for phone services. AT&T said about half a million of their customers still use them — but maybe not for long. AT&T has applied to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to be relieved of the duty of keeping and maintaining them.

All over California, AT&T is called the “Carrier of Last Resort.” That means they are responsible for the landline technology that dates back to the days when they were called “Ma Bell,” and they dominated the market.

But with deregulation, competition and new technology, today’s a different phone service landscape. A half million people using landlines in California may sound like a lot. But the company said that’s only 5% of their customers.

“Continuing to upgrade, maintain and build out that network for only a very small customer base is very expensive,” said Tedi Vriheas, vice president of external relations for AT&T California. “So every dollar we continue to invest in the copper network prevents us from putting that money into advanced services like fiber and wireless.”


Phone service as a universal need

People who understand the telecom system and its new technology say AT&T’s move makes perfectly good business sense. The problem is that having a phone today is not really a choice you can make. In a sense, it’s a utility that people need to communicate with loved ones or call 911.

Michael Kleeman is a research fellow at UC San Diego, in the School of Global Policy and Strategy. He worked most of his previous career as a telecom consultant, including for AT&T. He tries to imagine not offering people reliable, affordable phone service.

“This would be the same as saying, ‘Oh, you live in a rural area. We’re no longer going to give you postal service because you’re more expensive.’ Right?” Kleeman said.

AT&T has asked the CPUC to no longer require it to be the Carrier of Last Resort in California. But AT&T said they are not planning to abandon landlines in all areas.

“As long as somebody needs their landline, we will not be discontinuing service to them,” Vriheas said.

AT&T’s promise, spelled out in its application, said landline service would continue where there are “no alternatives” for voice service. Still, critics wonder what kinds of options would be considered acceptable alternatives by the company and the CPUC.

“I am fundamentally opposed to AT&T's effort to change their status as a service provider. AT&T has the financial ability to absorb this cost,” said Greg Hagwood, chairman of the Plumas County board of Supervisors.

I asked him about alternative services in the county; a place he described as seriously lacking in cell and internet service. He said, while he has cellular service in his home, go six miles west and it disappears.

He cited the example of Starlink, the satellite service run by Elon Musk that AT&T and the CPUC may consider an “alternative.” Hagwood, a retired county sheriff, thinks it would be unaffordable for many people in the region.

“We have a demographic that is unique. About 38% of our population is over the age of 60. Many of our population is at or below the poverty level,” Hagwood said.

Kleeman, at UCSD, adds that satellite service is a problem in places like Plumas County.

“If you’re in a rural area that has a lot of trees, it's difficult because Starlink is a set of satellites in the sky that move, relative to the earth,” he said. “So the antenna needs to see a big swath of the sky in order to have reliable connectivity.”

A nationwide push to serve the unserved

On the bright side, California and the federal government are now spending tens of billions of dollars to bring broadband Internet and fiber optic connections to areas with no access to advanced communication technology.

Providers like AT&T are eligible to apply for those state and federal funds. Kleeman said there are technologies that are well suited to serve rural areas.

He gave the example of fixed wireless connections, where an antenna on your home makes a strong link to a cell tower.

“So there’s a lot of substitute technologies. You just have to get those in place before you take the copper out,” he said.

Opposition to AT&T’s proposal is strong in many parts of California. At a recent statewide public hearing, the CPUC heard speaker after speaker, many of them elderly, oppose the company’s plan to stop maintaining landlines.

The Plumas County Board of Supervisors has approved a letter of opposition to the company’s plan to stop maintaining copper landlines. The Imperial County board was going to vote on a similar letter of opposition last month. It was pulled from the agenda for further discussion.

AT&T request to California PUC could send landlines to the landfill