It’s a bill that gets raised almost every year. It pits senior citizens against the state’s telecommunications giants and leaves many lawmakers scratching their heads as they search to find a way for legacy telephone services to co-exist with Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, and cellular service.
In Connecticut there are 517,000 individuals over the age of 65 and about 465,000 of them still subscribe to the old landline service. AARP Connecticut argues that the legislation being debated Thursday by the Energy and Technology Committee would deregulate landline services and put senior citizens at risk.
Kathy Null, an AARP advocacy volunteer, said she lives in Bridgewater with her husband, who uses a pacemaker.
“Landline telephone service is a lifeline for many older adults in Connecticut,” Null said. “It provides a level of security that cellphone and other cable and Internet-based phone services just can’t currently provide.”
Null said her husband requires a landline to test his pacemaker. She said it’s a reliable way to get the cardiologist the information without having to drive 30 miles to the doctor’s office.
“There’s an economic factor and a time factor for having this done over a landline,” Null said.
She said her husband’s heart monitor actually plugs into the landline jack.
But John Emra, regional vice president of AT&T, said the market has changed so rapidly that the medical device industry has made medical devices compatible with VOIP phones and other data sharing devices.
Today, traditional phone lines make up 28 percent of AT&T’s customer base in Connecticut. Those landlines are still regulated like they were more than 20 years ago even though they account for a declining portion of the market.
Emra stressed that the legislation does not allow AT&T to stop offering these landline services to customers who still want them.
“We can not just stop providing service like that,” Emra told the committee.
It also puts AT&T at a disadvantage in the marketplace because the cable companies that offer VOIP service are not regulated in the same manner as AT&T or Verizon, which also provides landline service to a small part of the state.
“Every dollar we spend on the legacy system is money that’s not being invested in services consumers want,“ Erma said.
He said at least nine of the 22 states that have passed similar legislation have eliminated all state regulation over traditional phone service and “nothing bad has happened.”
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said that while that sounds good, there’s still the problem of transitioning from the old to the new. Steinberg said he still has to email his mother to tell her to turn on her cellphone because he wants to call.
Erma said everyone was hesitant to transition from an analog television signal to digital, but it happened in a relatively short period of time and without incident.
“This bill does not allow us to stop offering service,” Erma said. “We’re in the business of consumer services. We want people to buy our service so we have a vested interest in making this work well.”
Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, wondered if everything is working so well now, then why do they need the legislation?
Erma said at the moment the company has to split its focus on both the old and the new. He said they would like to invest more in broadband and fiber optics as more consumers transition away from the legacy system, but even with an investment of $750 million in broadband in Connecticut last year, the company struggles to keep up with consumer demand.
Lesser wasn’t necessarily convinced.
At an AARP press conference earlier in the day Lesser joked that he’s one of the few lawmakers who “knows the difference between an IP address and a DNS server.”
At first glance it would be easy to assume Lesser would support legislation entitled “An Act Modernizing the State’s Telecommunication Laws.”
“Who could possibly be against modernizing?” Lesser said. But “this bill ends up being about deregulation, not modernization.”
He said it changes the laws in a way that would harm consumers, mostly seniors, who may not have enough money to purchase bundled services.
Lesser said he supported a similar bill last year and waited for a public benefit to materialize, but it never did.
Matthew Nemerson, president of the Connecticut Technology Council, submitted testimony in favor of the legislation.
In the past there may have been “legitimate concerns about not pushing technology so fast that our most vulnerable citizens — seniors and the economically disadvantaged — would be hurt by a lack of traditional telecommunications regulations to protect them,” Nemerson said.
“I don’t know how many of you have spent a Sunday afternoon helping your mother install Skype apps on her iPhone as I have . . . ” Nemerson wrote. “The point I wish to make is that the tide has turned — it is not just business or suburban young families who want the best, fastest, and least expensive Internet based communication services — it is everyone.”
Null said she was very tech savvy for a senior citizen and has an iPad and a cellphone, but for her it’s a matter of safety.
“Bottom line is seniors like me simply do not feel safe without access to a landline,” Null said.