AARP AARP States Michigan Advocacy

Landline phone service in jeopardy

William Wayland

From the Detroit Free Press

Bill Wayland is a self-described high-tech geek.

He uses an iPhone, iPad, computer-aided tools for his woodworking and Google Cool maps.

“I love all this stuff,” said the 71-year-old General Motors retiree.

But he also wants to keep the landline phone in his Chesterfield Township home. He can’t get service on his cell phone in the workshop in his basement and said he often loses calls when he uses his cell phone in his office. His 21-year-old disabled son doesn’t have the fine motor skills to use a cell phone, and his security alarm is wired to his landline.

So he said he’s a bit alarmed by a proposal that’s working its way through the Legislature in Lansing that would allow phone companies to discontinue landline service with just 90 days’ notice beginning in 2017.

Too many times he has wanted to make a call on his cell phone and found it dead, Wayland said, adding, “I love technology. And I use a lot of high-tech stuff in my house, but I think it’s too soon to get rid of landlines. I don’t think we’re ready.

There’s a case to be made that customers already are making the choice.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, the number of landline customers in Michigan dropped from 6.7 million in 2000 to 2.6 million in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of wireless customers jumped from 3.5 million in 2000 to 9.3 million in 2012. And Voice over Internet Protocol phone service — better known as VoIP or cable company-provided wireless service — has increased to 1.4 million customers since the FCC started tracking it in 2008.

“Every day, more and more consumers are making the transition to wireless and VoIP,” said Matt Resch, a spokesman for AT&T, one of the largest phone service providers in Michigan and a supporter of the legislation. “There is wireless service across almost every corner of the state. And it’s improving every day as more towers go up.”

The number of landline customers for AT&T has dropped by 71.2% since 2000. And the cost to maintain both a landline and a wireless system is becoming cost-prohibitive.

“The real question is how do you keep both systems up and running and invest in the new technology which everyone is going to — and will be at within five to seven years? And then how do you require companies to keep investing in that antiquated technology?” said state Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, who sponsored the bill. “Keeping up that infrastructure is costly.”

Some powerful forces — AARP, representing senior citizens, the Michigan Public Service Commission and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette — say they have serious concerns about the bill, not only for elderly people, but for people in rural areas where wireless coverage is spotty.

“Think of all the areas that would be underserved if we went to a totally wireless network. There are even some spotty places in southeast Michigan,” said Melissa Seifert, associate director of government affairs for AARP in Michigan. “The AARP isn’t opposed to wireless. Our members just want both.”

The organization sent a poll to members about phone service earlier this month. Of the 1,323 respondents, 85% had landlines, 84.2% had cell phones and 96.5% opposed the bill that would allow the end of landline service.

Jack Trantham of Richland Township has thought of getting rid of his landline for years. He had one of the first cell phones, a big box he got in 1975 and kept in his car to use in case of emergency during long commutes.

But a couple of years ago, he realized the value of his landline, with the help of his service dog, Reebok.

The golden retriever can not only help Trantham — a 68-year-old paraplegic who uses a wheelchair — get around more easily, the dog also can also retrieve items for him, like a newspaper, a sock on the floor, a telephone.

It was that final item that helped Trantham a couple of years ago when he fell on the ramp that led to his house and his 200-pound wheelchair fell on top of him. Reebok was able to get the phone and bring it to Trantham who called for help.

“I thought we were going to get rid of the landline, but now I’m glad we kept it,” he said. “The landline helps me a lot. Very few cell phones work in our basement, and my wife sometimes forgets to plug it in.”

He also worries about the high price of cell phones.

“They’re trying to force people who can’t afford them to buy them,” he said.

But Robert Kolt, the former president of AARP, said it’s time to make the full switch to wireless.

“Maintaining the old, archaic hard-line system is an expense that could be better invested in new technology,” he said. “Advocating to keep the old hard-line system is like fighting to keep the Pony Express or Western Union telegram.”

In many cases, seniors invented the new technology and others will grow to love it — if they give it a chance, Kolt said.

“If a senior is in a bad way, they better have their cell phone on them because the phone on the kitchen wall is not going to save their life,” he added.

Nofs acknowledged that there are legitimate concerns with the legislation and is working to massage the bill to get opponents on the wireless train. The bill would transfer the review of phone companies’ requests to abandon landline exchanges from the MPSC to the FCC.

But Nofs is working on an amendment that would open up the landline market to other providers if a telephone company wanted to abandon the service and there were customers who didn’t have an alternative. If another company didn’t come in to offer service to remaining landline customers, the MPSC would have the right to stop the original phone company from abandoning the service until a replacement could be found.

“I’m not going to leave anybody out there without being able to call police and fire,” said Nofs, who would like to see the bill move out of the Senate before the end of the year.

Even with the amendments, AARP has reservations.

“I’m happy to see they’re taking a few weeks off and really looking at this legislation,” Seifert said. “But I don’t think AARP is going to be able to support anything that comes out of” the Senate Energy and Technology Committee.

The MPSC is keeping an open mind, said spokeswoman Judy Palnau.

“If our concerns could be addressed with final language, we’ll take a look,” she said.

But Lynn Alexander, a Bloomfield Township resident who has worked with elderly people for years, said change is hard for senior citizens.

“Seniors have so much change going on in their lives as it is,” she said.


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