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Still need your landline? California regulators just stopped AT&T from pulling the plug

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California’s Public Utilities Commission rejected AT&T’s application to stop providing landlines and other services in areas where there is no other option.

Its 4-0 vote Thursday came after a judge determined the application by AT&T California was “fatally flawed.”

AT&T is the “carrier of last resort” for California, an official designation that means it covers most major cities, rural communities, and the land of more than 100 tribal governments. To find out if your home is in that area visit this website. The commission first labeled AT&T a carrier of last resort nearly three decades ago.

More than a dozen speakers during the public comment period at Thursday’s meeting supported keeping AT&T’s carrier-of-last resort designation and landlines. Previously, more than 5,000 public comments were written in response to AT&T’s application and nearly 6,000 people attended eight public forums held earlier this year. Numerous commenters said that, due to inconsistent cell coverage in their area, their landline is their primary means of communication with family, medical providers, and the outside world in the event of an emergency. Those concerns are particularly important for senior citizens, people with disabilities, and people who say they are sensitive to electromagnetic activity.

AT&T has argued that the people its landlines are now serving in the areas in question can turn to voice over internet service offered by cable providers or to mobile phone service offered by wireless providers like Verizon.

Steve Hogle lives in rural Sonoma County and told the commission that spotty cell phone coverage was a danger to his family during the 2019 Kincade wildfire.

“If we didn’t have a copper landline we would’ve not known about the evacuation and the extremely serious fire that went through here and most of our property,” he said. “I don’t want (voice over internet service) because if there’s no power, there’s no internet, and all these things are of extreme importance to the safety of this community.”

The company has attempted to end carrier-of-last-resort designation obligations in roughly half of U.S. states, but those efforts don’t always stay within the confines of the law, according to federal prosecutors. In 2022, AT&T Illinois agreed to pay a $23 million fine to resolve charges it attempted to influence former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

The commission’s decision does not bring an end to the carrier-of-last-resort debates in California. AT&T and roughly a dozen members of the California Legislature have publicly expressed support for Assembly Bill 2797, which would effectively bring an end to some carrier-of-last-resort obligations. The California State Association of Counties, Rural County Representatives of California, and Urban Counties of California said last week that they oppose the bill, adding in a letter to the bill’s author that it would “leave large swaths of the most vulnerable Californians without reliable and affordable access to basic telephone service.”

The Public Utilities Commission also voted 5-0 Thursday to begin proceedings to change rules for companies that are designated a carrier of last resort. It’s time to modernize those rules, said commission president Alice Reynolds, because a lot has changed in the past 30 years, including a shift toward cell phones and away from landlines, and it’s now part of the commission’s mandate to make high-speed internet access universally available.

“I’m hopeful that through this new rulemaking, we can really modernize these programs and move towards the future to meet our broadband for all objectives,” she said ahead of the vote.


This story was originally published by CalMatters and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.