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November 14, 2013

Phone changes decried: Opponents fear higher landline bills, reduction in service

HARRISBURG — Consumer advocates and the AARP are warning that a telephone deregulation bill would allow phone companies across the commonwealth to shed price controls that have kept land-line phone bills cheaper than wireless phone bills.

The AARP also argues that the legislation sets such a low standard for “competition” that phone companies could abandon parts of the state, leaving any phone service in those areas to expensive wireless companies.

The bill is due to be considered by the House Consumer Affairs committee next week.

Local phone companies are subject to regulation by the state Public Utility Commission. Wireless providers are not.

Verizon advertises basic phone service ranging from $13.45 to $17.73 a month for local calling and long distance service of $6 a month plus

40 cents a minute. J.D. Power and Associates estimates that the average family spends $139 a month on cellphones.

Landline phone companies say they need the bill to better compete as their share of the phone market has shriveled.

The number of phone lines served by local telephone companies in Pennsylvania dropped from 8.5 million in 1999 to fewer than 4 million in 2012, according to the Pennsylvania Telephone Association.

As of the end of 2012, more than 38 percent of households in the United States were wireless-only, having eliminated landline service entirely. That percentage is forecast to exceed 50 percent by 2015, according to the telephone association.

The AARP and other critics are overblowing the dangers of deregulation, said Steve Samara, the association's president. Most of rural Pennsylvania would fail to meet the bill’s standard for competitive markets and remain untouched by the bill, he said.

Samara said he could not immediately say what phone exchanges would be considered competitive.

“My sense is that the Philly, Capitol Region, Pittsburgh, Erie and Scranton areas would be eligible for competitive declaration,” he said.

The state Public Utility Commission has not examined the bill to determine how widespread deregulation would be, a spokeswoman said.

Even if rural phone companies have the ability to abandon a market, there is little reason to believe they would, Samara said.

A report by the labor-linked Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg found that similar deregulation efforts have resulted in higher prices for consumers elsewhere.

In Ohio, rates have increased $1.25 per month (the maximum allowed) since a deregulation law passed in 2010. In Illinois, AT&T increased line charge rates by up to 63 percent following deregulation. In California, some rates increased by several hundred percent.

In addition, critics of the law say Pennsylvania’s regulation of the telephone industry has resulted in better service for consumers than in other states. Phone companies were required to roll out broadband. As a result, 93 percent of Pennsylvania has broadband access. That’s the best of any state with a large rural population.

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