By Natalie Missakian • Although they own cellphones, Kathy and Leo Null would never voluntarily get rid of the landline at their Bridgewater home. To relay data to his cardiologist every few months, Leo, 67, must plug his pacemaker monitor into a landline jack.
So when Kathy, 66, heard AT&T was pushing for legislation last year that would let companies drop landlines without regulatory approval, she volunteered to help AARP fight it.
The legislation failed to pass in 2012 but is expected to be introduced again this year.
AT&T says a change in the law would create jobs and new investment and insists that customers with basic telephone service would not be abandoned.
But AARP and other consumer advocates disagree, saying the changes would make it too easy for AT&T to drop its least profitable customers — low-income, older people and those in rural areas — who often don't want or need expensive cable bundles or high-speed Internet.
"Having a telephone is not a luxury," said John Erlingheuser, advocacy director for AARP Connecticut. "It's a necessity for safety, for medical reasons and for peace of mind," he said.
Connecticut is one of at least 15 states that considered some form of telephone deregulation in 2012, according to the National Regulatory Research Institute.
Under current state law, telephone companies must provide affordable landline service unless they prove in hearings before the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) that there is significant competition — meaning cell or Internet phone options are available.
The AT&T-backed bill would eliminate the hearings and allow telephone companies to terminate a competitive service by giving PURA 30 days' notice.
"We see no positive impact to consumers in promoting deregulation of telecom or cable industries," William L. Vallée Jr., state broadband policy coordinator for the Office of Consumer Counsel, which advocates for state ratepayers, said in an email.
"We are particularly concerned about attempts to circumvent the telephone company's obligation to provide telephone service to Connecticut residents."
AT&T Connecticut spokesman Chuck Coursey denied the bill would hurt consumers, saying nothing in it "would have changed any existing protections for consumers or permit companies to terminate landline service.
"States across the country have enacted reforms such as those proposed here and their economies and consumers have benefited," he said in an email.
He said what's known as "plain old telephone service" (POTS) is a "noncompetitive" service and would still be regulated under the bill.
But Vallée said those with POTS — a telephone with no additional services such as call waiting, long distance or caller ID — represent a small number of landline owners.
He said the majority of the state's landlines are "competitive" and would be vulnerable.
Kathy Null said if she lost her landline, she and her husband would need to drive 30 minutes to the doctor's office for a pacemaker checkup.
While there are monitors that can be used with cellphones, Leo's doctor did not recommend them. Plus, cellphone reception where they live is spotty.
The bill's supporters said existing rules are outdated in an era when people can choose cellphones and Internet audio and video calling services such as Vonage and Skype.
But opponents said that for many older people, those options aren't real choices because of expense, poor reception or the need for a landline to use a medical device.
Even if her husband didn't have a pacemaker that required a landline for medical checkups, Kathy Null said a landline makes her feel safe.
A 911 emergency call from a landline "is going to tell the person on the other side exactly where you are. Your cellphone does not," she said. "As I get older, that's something I have to be mindful of."
Vallée complained that "there will simply be no 'basic service' telephone access available in very short order.
"This has profound effects on the elderly population, as they are far less likely to subscribe to bundled services, either by lack of interest or cost considerations. State regulation is their last hope to be able to purchase POTS services, a virtual lifeline, and that bulkhead is eroding," he said.
AARP Connecticut also will urge the legislature to:
- Block mandatory smart meters, which measure energy usage and transmit readings to the utility company. AARP says smart meters lead to tiered pricing, which hurts retired people who are home during the day and are unable to take advantage of off-peak rates.
- Increase funding and options for home- and community-based care.
- Restore the property tax credit to $500 from $300.
To help with the legislative agenda, call the volunteer coordinator at 866-295-7279 toll-free or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The time commitment is flexible, and training is available.
Natalie Missakian is a writer living in Cheshire, Conn.