Telecommunications bill advances in House

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Legislation supporters say is designed to help the state stay abreast of changes in the telecommunications industry passed the House Public Utilities Committee on Thursday.
The bill would remove the Public Service Commission’s regulatory authority over 30,000 primarily AT&T landlines across the state. It also puts in law that other aspects of the telecommunications industry, such as cable television, would not be regulated by the three-member Public Service Commission.
PSC members have opposed portions of the bill. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.
The bill was one of scores that passed out of committees Thursday as the Legislature works to meet a Tuesday deadline for committee action.
Rep. Jody Steverson, D-Ripley, said he opposed the measure because it could result in some elderly AT&T customers losing their basic landline service. He did say that Public Utilities Chair Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, had amended the bill to make it less objectionable.
“I don’t want to require my grandmother and the other elderly people of my district to have to get a cellphone” because AT&T no longer was providing the basic landline service, Steverson said.
Beckett said the intent is to further the deregulation that the state undertook in 2006, based on federal changes. Under current law, Beckett said all landlines are not regulated if there is competition, with the exception of about 30,000. He said those landlines are for basic service, which includes no added features, such as caller ID or call waiting. He said half of those lines are to fax machines.
But others say many elderly people have the basic lines and would be affected by the bill.
The bill has pitted the various telecommunications entities at odds. Beckett said AT&T, which now must compete with other telecommunications providers, should not be required to provide a service that it did not want to provide. But others said AT&T received additional federal funds to provide such services in primarily rural areas.
Beckett said those funds are now being directed at other areas, such as providing broadband services.
“Everything is changing so fast,” Beckett said. “Technology now allows you to get phone service in so many different ways.”
The legislation still would give the Public Service Commission some oversight of the telecommunications industry and allow it to take complaints.
Beckett said he believes the bill has been improved and that other improvements will be made in the coming weeks.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com