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San Mateo supes concerned about AT&T plans to scrap landline service

For many Coastside residents, landlines are essential
For many Coastside residents, landlines are essential 04:14

SAN MATEO COUNTY -- AT&T's recent moves to scrap traditional landlines have generated concern from some Bay Area elected leaders who are hoping to preserve what's perceived as a vital service in isolated mountain and coastal regions.

In remote regions where cellular service is spotty, landlines can be a lifeline in a crisis, according to San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller. At Tuesday's board of supervisors meeting, he told the company to share specifics.

"How many customers are you indicating right now?" he said. "In what time period will this happen, and how many of those do you contend will have reliable alternative services at that time? And what information do you have about the unreliability of the network on the coast, because AT&T is also a cellular provider."

Daren Chan, the AT&T representative present at the meeting, agreed to find experts who will provide testimony and produce documents. The material will be used in a hearing to study actions the county might take to address emergency preparedness in the unincorporated areas, like the coast side.

That public hearing in San Mateo is scheduled for March 12 at 1 p.m.

Mueller's concern stems from the fact that many people in San Mateo live in remote coastal areas that get hit hard by storms. In the 2020 CZU fire, landlines allowed those people to receive reverse 911 calls from their county departments of emergency management. He wants landlines to remain available to those residents during a hazardous event, like a flood or fire, when cell service gets knocked out.

In March 2023, AT&T California applied with the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC, to be relieved from its legal designation as the "carrier of last resort" in targeted areas. The designation, a cornerstone of utility regulation, obligates a carrier to serve all customers within their territory, including extending facilities where necessary to provide service. AT&T California has held that designation since 1996. It is the only carrier in the state that has landlines.

If its request to the CPUC is approved, the company can drop wires for most of its service area. 

Letters to San Mateo residents started arriving in January. The company told people they may no longer be providing landline service if its application is approved.  A map linked to the application on the CPUC website shows the affected areas, which include San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, Santa Cruz County and, in fact, much of the Bay Area.

A Thursday email from an AT&T spokesperson said there's been a dramatic and continuing decline in the number of customers who subscribe to their traditional landline voice service over the last two decades, and Californians have plenty of options available including voice service over fiber or wireless.

"In California, 99.7 percent of consumers within our service territory have at least three facilities-based alternative options for voice service," AT&T said. "For customers who do not have alternatives available, we will continue to provide service until such time an alternative is available."

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, Senate Bill 156 (2021) provided over $6 billion to expand broadband infrastructure in underserved communities. Even with funding, internet availability can differ greatly among neighbors due to individual financial constraints, a home's elevation, signal obstacles, accessibility for work trucks, and the accuracy of previous attempts to estimate an area's access.

A CPUC fact sheet provided with AT&T's application reads "An area without a carrier of last resort could mean that there would be no landline telephone company serving that area and that there could possibly be no landline telephone access for customers in that area." Other elected officials taking a position against AT&T's request include U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo (CA-16), Jimmy Panetta (CA-19) and Mike Thompson (CA-04).

State supporters include State Sen. Josh Becker and Assemblymember Marc Berman.

As of Thursday, said Mueller, Santa Cruz County will be collaborating with San Mateo, and they will be sharing their findings. Santa Clara Supervisor Joe Simitian issued a statement Thursday saying he will also be asking his board of supervisors to take up the issue at their March 12 meeting.

According to Mueller, the CPUC has received more than 3,000 public comments on AT&T's application, filled with testimonials about how important landline connectivity is to them and how it keeps them safe when there are wildfires, natural disasters, power outages and other emergencies.

The final opportunities for public comment on AT&T's application to the CPUC are scheduled for March 14 in Indio, and there is a virtual session on March 19.            

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