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Anti-Oversight Lobbying Coming to a State Near You

A trend is slowly but surely creeping throughout the country: eliminating oversight over phone services. Under the guise of reforming or modernizing regulations, telecommunications companies’ efforts may mean an end to the only access that many have to the outside world. Specifically, some telecommunications providers are seeking to preclude their states’ public utility commissions (PUCs) from exercising their authority to ensure that basic services reach all Americans. This move is an attempt to undermine PUCs, which not only play a vital role to encourage investments in telecommunications services that protect consumers' interests, but were also established as a public venue to air concerns and address issues involving telecommunications services.

In New Jersey, lobbyists are attempting to convince state legislators to take away the oversight arm of the state’s Public Utility Commission. They seek to completely deregulate landline phone service, consequently harming senior citizens, low-income households, the disabled, rural communities, and other vulnerable residents. One of the steps many lobbyists have taken to pursue this goal is convincing the New Jersey PUC to allow the local incumbent phone provider to stop the distribution of its White Pages directory to customers. While this decision may seem minor at first glance, it limits the ability of many consumers to access basic information via the White Pages. Further, it is the obligation of an incumbent phone carrier who provides a public service.

As we reported in a past Dispatch, telecommunications providers in Illinois convinced the state legislature to deregulate Internet-based phone services. The introduction of Colorado's HB 1281 was an example of another deregulation tactic earlier this year. The bill, thankfully vetoed by Governor Bill Ritter, was intended to exempt providers of Voice-Over-Interconnected Protocol (VoIP) from any form of regulatory oversight by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The proposal was seen as taking the state only one step away from deregulating landline services altogether. In his veto message, the Governor underlined, “VoIP may be the predominant form of basic telephone service… [and the state] cannot be left without the power to regulate such an important technology.” Ritter promised that further commented that any changes to the regulatory framework on utility bills must be accompanied by public hearings either before the legislature or the PUC, particularly when consumer protection is at stake.

What are the dangers of deregulation? Deregulating basic utility services – such as telephones – could lead to steep rate increases that would likely limit access for those who still rely on phone service for basic communications needs. Without any sort of consumer protection, many would stand to lose access to their only means of communication. Historically, states have had regulatory authority and have successfully enacted regulation that has allowed more Americans to access electricity and landline phones. It is undisputed that technology is constantly changing and its regulatory framework must adapt to these changes. However, regulatory reform must occur in a way that protects consumers' interests and access to basic utilities.