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AT&T Aims To Pull Plug On Traditional Landlines

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) -- While many people use cellphones exclusively, there are still plenty of traditional landlines in California homes and businesses. However, state lawmakers are considering pulling the plug on what's known as "plain old telephone service."

Ruthanne Shpinner says her landline is her lifeline. "It is my connection to the world," said Shpinner.

Now she's worried she may lose that connection.

Shpinner's phone company AT&T is pushing a bill that would allow phone companies in California to discontinue traditional landline service -- also known as legacy service -- starting in 2020 as long as there is an alternative in place.

AT&T says customers could keep landlines if the bill passes, but they would likely utilized alternate technologies like voice over internet protocol, or VOIP.

Bill sponsor and San Jose Assemblyman Evan Low says the old copper wires and switching stations used to route land line calls are expensive to maintain for a dwindling number of customers.

He says that money would be better spent investing in new telecommunications technology.

"The plain old telephone system known as pots is rapidly approaching irrelevance," said Low. "We're modernizing with the times. We liken this from going to analog to digital."

Mark Toney of the Utility Reform Network fears the move could leave millions without reliable service in an emergency.

"We think it would be an absolute catastrophe. Our first concern is public safety," said Toney. "The old landline telephone service will operate two weeks without electricity."  He says the alternatives like cell services like VIOP are not as reliable in an emergency.

Not surprisingly, Ken McNeeley of AT&T sees it differently.

"The best phone in case of emergency is the phone you have in your hand," said McNeeley.

While AT&T won't reveal what percentage of their customers still use landline services, they provided data that indicates 4.5 million Californians still rely on traditional landlines. However, the PUC says there are more.

State regulators oppose the bill, citing public safety and reliability and the PUC says Phone companies don't need this legislation to modernize.

Opponents of the bill say the real motive is money. "The profit margin is very small in the landline business," said Toney.

McNeeley maintained that AT&T does not spend money in support of legislation.

However, according to records filed with the Secretary of State, AT&T has invested more than $750,000 in lobbying at the capitol on a series of recent bills, including Lows AB 2395.

And AT&T lobbying disclosures lists Low among the politicians who received lodging, food and beverages.

Though convincing people like Ruthanne to dump her landline could cost a lot more.

"If it ain't broken, don't fix it," said Shpinner.

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