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Lawmakers: 'Be very afraid' of Minnesota phone-service deregulation

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ST. PAUL—AT&T, Comcast and the Minnesota Cable Communications Association are coming for Minnesotans' consumer rights as local phone customers. Be afraid. Be very afraid—especially if you live in Greater Minnesota.

These companies are asking the Legislature to deregulate local phone service if it is provided by a new technology—Voice-over-Internet Protocol (or VoIP). They claim they shouldn't have to follow any rules at all because they're providing phone service using this more modern technology.

But don't let them or the word "Internet" fool you. You don't even need an Internet connection for calls to travel over VoIP technology. Basically, VoIP is just a method of getting calls from one place to another. To the consumer, the phone call is the same if it travels by VoIP, copper, fiber or (practically) two tin cans and a string.

And if you are a consumer, you couldn't care less how the call gets to its destination. But you do care that calls to 911, your families and your friends are reliably completed. You care if the company drags its feet on installing your new phone, or if you have service problems and the company doesn't fix them.

And you care that if you get bogus charges on your bill, you have recourse if the company refuses to refund them.

But if the cable companies get their way at the Legislature, all those basic protections will vanish. Immediately, consumers whose telephone company sends their calls in whole or in part using VoIP technology will lose those protections.

This would be disastrous, especially for consumers who live in Greater Minnesota, where the local phone company often is the only reliable provider in town.

▇ First, under the bill there will no longer be a right to have phone service. It is expensive and unprofitable to serve rural customers and maintain infrastructure. Companies will invest their money in densely populated, more profitable urban areas and disinvest in maintaining the network in rural, less profitable areas.

Rural consumers will experience worsening service quality and more outages as the system is allowed to deteriorate. Customers will not get their phones fixed in a timely manner and will have no recourse to lodge a complaint.

And we all know that cell service is spotty in Greater Minnesota. What happens when the only choice you have is a cell phone that may not be able to pinpoint your position during a 911 call?

▇ Second, the protections against charging exorbitant connection or reconnection charges would be gone. If the bill becomes law, phone companies can shut you off for no reason, even if you always pay their bill on time.

Companies can shut off customers simply because they are too expensive to serve and not sufficiently profitable. Who are these customers? They are older Minnesotans, people with disabilities, people on fixed incomes—and people who live in Greater Minnesota.

▇ Third, AT&T and Comcast tell legislators that deregulation will produce more competition, lower prices, better service, more jobs and Broadband for everyone.

But beware of telecomm companies bearing "gifts."

Want a glimpse of a deregulated future, with no Public Utilities Commission power to help consumers when they need it? In California, service has deteriorated, and there are questions about whether people can reliably reach 911.

And a 2015 report to the National Regulatory Research Institute alarmingly revealed that, after deregulation, 11 states were dealing with service outages and emergency-service problems.

What's certain is that if this bill becomes law, all your consumer rights and protections as a local phone customer will be in jeopardy. Phone, internet and cable companies won't have to serve you if they don't want to. They can charge a Greater Minnesota customer more than they charge a Metro customer.

Especially hurt will be those who just need a phone at an affordable price—like older Minnesotans (85 percent of whom still have the good old phone) and those of us who live in rural Minnesota.

Unless P.T. Barnum was right, the Legislature should not be fooled by empty promises and should reject the AT&T/Comcast phone deregulation bill.

And if AT&T and Comcast manage to push it past the Legislature, the governor must veto it.

State Sen. Simonson, DFL-Duluth, is a member of the Senate Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee. State Rep. Johnson, DFL-Saint Paul, is a member of the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee.