An AT&T-backed bill to end traditional landline phone service in Illinois is now the law of the land.
Overriding Gov. Bruce Rauner‘s veto, the General Assembly approved the telecom modernization bill on Saturday, enabling AT&T to disconnect its remaining 1.2 million landline customers statewide, pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission.
But holdouts may have some time before AT&T pulls the plug for good on its legacy telephone service.
“It’s important for our Illinois customers to know that traditional landline phone service from AT&T is not going away anytime soon,” Paul La Schiazza, AT&T Illinois president, said in a statement Wednesday.
With customers switching to internet-based and wireless phone services, AT&T has been pushing for legislation to allow it to unplug its aging landline network and focus on the modern alternatives. AT&T said it is losing about 5,000 landline customers statewide each week, with less than 10 percent of Illinois households in its territory still using the service.
While AT&T ultimately needs approval from the FCC to abandon a long-standing obligation to maintain its “plain old telephone service,” it has already gotten similar legislation passed in 19 of the 20 other states where it is the legacy telephone carrier, with California as the only holdout.
“The new Illinois law helps plan for the eventual transition to only the technologies that customers overwhelmingly prefer today — modern landline service and wireless service,” La Schiazza said. “While the timetable for that transition is undetermined at this time, it could take a number of years.”
Critics say the new law will leave behind vulnerable Illinois residents, particularly the elderly, who disproportionately rely on traditional landline telephone service for everything from connecting with family to monitoring life-threatening medical conditions.
Representatives of AARP Illinois and the Citizens Utility Board, an Illinois nonprofit watchdog group, expressed disappointment over the legislation.
“If AT&T succeeds in ending traditional landline phone service, we think that will hurt people — particularly seniors and those with medical conditions — who depend on a landline as their most reliable link to vital services,” CUB spokesman Jim Chilsen said.
Chilsen said his organization is “not done fighting” and will shift the battle to the national level in a bid to keep in place the FCC rulings requiring AT&T to provide traditional landline service.
“AT&T still must get final Federal Communications Commission approval to end traditional home phone service, so CUB will do everything it can to protect landline customers as this battle moves to Washington,” Chilsen said.
As part of the new state law, AT&T is required to notify Illinois customers of its plans to disconnect their landline service before petitioning the FCC. Customers who believe that landlines are their only viable phone option will be able to appeal to the Illinois Commerce Commission.
Julie Vahling, associate state director of AARP Illinois, said the organization will focus on working with consumers who plan to appeal their landline disconnection.
“We’ll move on to the next fight for consumers, to try to make sure that they’re educated and know how to go about appealing to keep their traditional landline service,” Vahling said.
The legislation, House Bill 1811, also includes an increase in the fee all phone customers — mobile, online and traditional landline — pay for 911 emergency service. Outside of Chicago, the monthly rate next year would nearly double to $1.50 per line, up from 87 cents. Chicago is authorized to raise its 911 fee to $5 per month, up from the current $3.90, pending City Council approval.
The legislation went through several incarnations before landing on the governor’s desk Saturday. Rauner issued an amendatory veto the same day, which was mostly focused on the 911 rate increases.
Both chambers voted to override the veto: by a 90-22 vote in the Illinois House and a 43-1 vote in the Senate.
Meanwhile, AT&T’s La Schiazza offered a measure of reassurance to the company’s dwindling ranks of landline customers, especially those who would rather fight than switch.
“We value our customers, and we want to keep them,” La Schiazza said. “While most customers are enjoying updated technologies today, including wireless service and modern landline service, AT&T currently continues to sell and provide traditional landline phone service to our customers.”
Originally posted on Chicago Tribune