This opinion piece originally appeared at Reuters.com.
The guarantee of landline telephone service at almost any address, a legal right many Americans may not even know they have, is quietly being legislated away in our U.S. state capitals.
AT&T and Verizon, the dominant telephone companies, want to end their 99-year-old universal service obligation known as “provider of last resort.” They say universal landline service is a costly and unfair anachronism that is no longer justified because of a competitive market for voice services.
The new rules AT&T and Verizon drafted would enhance profits by letting them serve only the customers they want. Their focus, and that of smaller phone companies that have the same universal service obligation, is on well-populated areas where people can afford profitable packages that combine telephone, Internet and cable television.
Sprint, T-Mobile and the cell phone divisions of AT&T and Verizon are not subject to universal service and can serve only those areas they find profitable.
Unless the new rules are written very carefully, millions of people, urban and rural, will lose basic telephone service or be forced to pay much more for calls.
Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin already have repealed universal service obligations. No one has been cut off yet, but once almost every state has ended universal service I am sure we will see parts of the landline system shut down.
Years of subtle incremental legal changes have brought the telephone companies within sight of ending universal service, which began in 1913 when AT&T President Thomas Vail promised “one system, one policy, universal service” in return for keeping Ma Bell’s monopoly.
AT&T wants universal service obligations to end wherever two or more voice services are available, said Joel Lubin, AT&T’s public policy vice president. Verizon promotes a similar approach.