Phone companies would have an easier time discontinuing traditional land lines in Michigan under legislation approved Thursday that supporters say recognizes technological change but critics contend could leave customers with less reliable service.
Starting in 2017, the bill, which passed 31-4, would remove state regulators from the front end of a process by which phone providers can ask to end wire line service. They would still need clearance from federal regulators.
AT&T and other companies ultimately want to transition to Internet-based land lines or wireless home phones.
The legislation headed to the House would allow customers losing traditional service to ask the Michigan Public Service Commission to investigate whether "comparable voice service with reliable access to 911" is still available. If the commission decides that such service is not available, it would force the current company to provide service until another "willing" provider is available.
"I as much as anyone understand the anxiety that comes with change and changing technology," said the bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Mike Nofs of Battle Creek, who cited the transition to digital TV. "While no transition is perfect, I am confident that we have addressed as many of the concerns as we can anticipate and provide our citizens with the important consumer protections that will ensure that when they pick up their home phone, regardless of where they are in this great state, the call will get through just like it always has."
The number of traditional land lines in Michigan dropped from 6.7 million in 2000 to 2.6 million last year, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In the same period, the number of wireless lines increased from 3.5 million to 9.3 million.
Another 1.4 million land line users were served with online technology called "voice over Internet protocol," or VoIP.
Phone companies and business groups generally support the legislation as a way to streamline regulations and free up money to spend on more cell towers and updated fiber optic networks instead of a dying service. But AARP Michigan, while acknowledging the bill has been improved, remains concerned that too much authority would be left solely to the FCC instead of state regulators and it would be up to customers losing wire line service to complain to the PSC instead of letting the PSC launch its own probe.
"VoIP runs over cable. Not everyone has broadband yet. With wireless, not everyone has wireless that they can get to so that's a concern for us," said AARP lobbyist Melissa Seifert, who also expressed concerns about potentially higher bills and VoIP's compatibility with 911 along with security alarm and medical alert systems now connected to traditional land lines.
Extended power outages also are an issue with VoIP and not traditional wire lines, though backers say VoIP often has a battery backup free of charge providing hours of service during outages.