When cellphones fail, landlines are still a lifeline
Feb 22, 2024

When cellphones fail, landlines are still a lifeline

AT&T wants out of its “carrier of last resort” obligation in California. But that service is most important in emergencies, says Regina Costa at The Utility Reform Network.

Before cellphones, a twisted pair of copper wires that linked our homes to the local phone company kept us all connected.

Today, in much of California, telecom giant AT&T is still required to provide that basic landline phone service to anyone who wants it. Now though, AT&T is asking regulators to be relieved of that obligation. “No customer will be left without voice or 911 service,” the company says. Californians weighing in, by and large, are skeptical.

One, from the city of Santa Rosa, told regulators that in emergencies like recent storms and fires of the last few years, “our only communication was through our landline.”

Regina Costa, telecom policy director at the Utility Reform Network, an advocacy group, told Marketplace’s Lily Jamali that having a “carrier of last resort” matters.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Regina Costa: It means it can’t pick and choose that it will provide service to some customers and not others. It means the service is supposed to be reliable. It means they decide they’re going to put money into this neighborhood, but not that neighborhood. It’s based on the notion that it is absolutely imperative for society that everyone in our nation has the ability to get essential communication service, for your family, for communicating with your job, for communicating with your school, for communicating with social service agencies and other governments, and especially in times of emergencies.

Lily Jamali: And who would be most affected by a change like this?

Costa: The obvious people who would be affected are those customers who have kept their copper landlines. But the obligation to serve covers every type of landline voice service, not just the traditional copper line. But yes, initially, it would be the traditional copper line. If you’re an elderly customer and you rely on that line, say, for medical services, or you’re a rural customer, and you rely on that line because you can’t get a cellphone signal, there’s no cable service in your area, all of those people would be affected.

But the other part to this is that the properly maintained copper network will function during a power outage. Say you’re in downtown San Francisco or you’re in downtown San Jose or Los Angeles, and you are using a telephone that relies on VoIP. In order for that phone to work when the power is out for an extended period, you have to have both backup power at your home or your business, or you have to have backup and you have to have backup power in the network.

Jamali: VoIP being voice over internet protocol, which is an alternative to landline service that was introduced about 20 years ago. I remember it was such a big deal, it seemed like a very good thing at the time.

Costa: It can be a good thing, but the bigger thing is that the way the networks are designed, it needs commercial power. And if the power goes out, the service goes out. It’s the same for cellphone service. And the argument on carrier of last resort when AT&T doesn’t want to do it anymore, they claim that there are all sorts of options available to people. And then you ask, “Well, what are those?” And they point to cellphone companies, or they point to cable companies, or they point to another service that they would offer where they will put fiber optic to a certain point near a neighborhood, and then have everyone else be on a wireless service. But that all raises the problem of backup power. If the power is not there, the service is not going to work. And we found that out the hard way during the wildfires of a couple of years ago, where a lot of the service in the San Francisco area went out.

Jamali: How would a change like this affect places like hospitals or fire stations or even small businesses that use landlines that depend on them in some cases?

Costa: I think it affects them in a very bad way. Businesses themselves will lose essential services. And there are some areas in the state that do not have the advanced networks. But the other side of it is their patients, or people who are facing an emergency will lose a key way of contacting these agencies. If you are out on the far end of a mountain road, you are likely not going to have a cellphone service. You would have a copper landline. If you did not have that copper landline, you would be driving for a very long time to try to even contact the local fire station or a local sheriff [by cellphone].

Jamali: Well, AT&T has said because of the obligation that they have under this carrier of last resort regulation, they’re required to take on the cost of maintaining two different networks, one of which has fewer and fewer subscribers each year. What do you say to the concern that they raise that they’re supporting a network that is dying out over time anyway?

Costa: AT&T itself has been trying to push customers away from its copper network. It just does not want to bear the expense of maintaining it even though they have made a lot of money on this.

Jamali: How does this fight in California fit into a bigger national trend?

Costa: It fits into a trend because AT&T, in particular, wants to get out of the landline telephone business. And so it is going to different states, and particularly state legislatures, to try to convince them to allow them to get rid of this service. They’ve also gone to the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] in 13 states. They just filed this application to say that they’re going to shut down their traditional phone service, and when that happens, if the FCC allows them to do it, customers will be on a month-to-month contract where AT&T can discontinue that service at any time. And so, other states will look at California and say, “Well, what is California doing here?” So that I think is how it fits in.

Jamali: Because some other states have capitulated, do you expect we’re just going to see kind of a cascade effect where more and more states kind of end up doing this because they’re being hit by all these requests from telecom companies?

Costa: I actually think you might see the opposite. Because with climate change, the number of weather events and fire events that we’re seeing across the country are escalating. And with that, I think states are recognizing the importance of ensuring that there are essential communications, regardless of the technology that is being used. And that it’s absolutely essential to make sure that everyone can communicate during those disasters. And if you don’t have a carrier of last resort, how do you ensure that this essential communication takes place? You can’t.

More on this

In a statement, AT&T said it operates wireline networks in 21 states across the country, and that 20 of those have already let the company move away from copper lines. It said none of its landline customers have lost service as a result.

Here in California, AT&T said its application with state regulators is the first step of a process to phase out copper-based landline phone service as demand for it declines.

In an article on this issue, Wired notes that AT&T has said it won’t cut off phone service immediately, and ending the “carrier of last resort” obligation would make it easier for AT&T to drop its phone lines later on.

Here’s AT&T’s full statement on its request for relief from California’s carrier of last resort obligation:

“No customer will be left without voice or 911 service. With the vast array of options offering greater functionality and reliability, millions of California customers have long ago chosen modern, high-speed internet and wireless phones over outdated telephones. We’re working with consumers who use traditional copper-based phone service to upgrade to newer technologies from us or other providers, so everyone will have better ways to connect.”

The future of this podcast starts with you.

Every day, the “Marketplace Tech” team demystifies the digital economy with stories that explore more than just Big Tech. We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.

As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.

Support “Marketplace Tech” in any amount today and become a partner in our mission.

The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer
Rosie Hughes Assistant Producer