An attempt by traditional phone companies to shed some of their government oversight has run into a formidable opponent: Minnesota seniors determined to hang on to their land lines.
Facing competition from cable and wireless carriers, CenturyLink and other phone companies have asked the Legislature for more leeway in raising rates and responding to outages.
The effort received little public attention until Thursday, when Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson called a news conference to urge lawmakers to dump the ideas. She was flanked by more than a dozen AARP members.
“Let’s just get this one off the table,” 72-year-old Judy Schaffhausen told reporters.
The Rosemount woman described how she hooks a Medtronic cable into her phone line to transmit live data from her pacemaker every three months to her doctor in Minneapolis.
Sandi Hagglund said cellphone reception is so spotty where she lives in South Haven that she has to drive up a hill to make wireless calls. If she had been forced to do that the night she called 911 for her ill husband, he would have died, she said.
Swanson said there is a real threat phone companies would raise prices and phase out land lines if their efforts aren’t stopped.
“We’re very concerned they will just drop people who are too expensive to service,” Swanson said.
The Minnesota Telecom Alliance and at least one lawmaker say the fears aren’t justified.
Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, said he’s been working with consumer groups such as Legal Aid and AARP on legislation, and Swanson’s news conference caught him by surprise.
“Telling Minnesotans that they will lose their land lines is false and just scare tactic politics,” said Sparks. “No carrier will be able to unilaterally discontinue service to a customer under this legislation.”
Brent Christensen, head of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, called Swanson’s concerns “way out of line.”
The telecom alliance is behind both bills, which Christensen said would help level the playing field for traditional phone companies, which he said are subject to greater restrictions than wireless and cable carriers. About 90 such phone companies operate in Minnesota. CenturyLink is the largest, but the group also includes Frontier Communications, Windstream, Arvig, TDS, Enventis and NuTelecom.
According to Christensen, the bills would allow companies to simply file rate hikes with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) without requiring approval for them; allow companies to offer special bundled service packages without requiring direct approval; and change the service quality rules so that companies don’t have to address telephone problems before broadband problems.