Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of Humboldt County residents could lose access to landline services in the next year. 

AT&T California has applied to remove its designation as a “carrier of last resort,” which requires the telecommunications giant to provide traditional, analog telephone service via copper wires, also known as “plain old telephone service,” to residential and business customers throughout its service territory. If the application is approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in the coming months, AT&T would no longer be required to provide basic landline services in certain areas, leaving only cellular and internet-based voice communication services that it and other companies provide.

AT&T contends that the “outdated” COLR obligation has forced it to “wastefully operate and maintain two duplicative networks: one, an antiquated, narrowband network with an ever-dwindling base of subscribers, and the other, a forward-looking, fiber and wireless broadband network,” as stated in the executive summary of the application. “The modest regulatory reforms sought in this application would boost investment in next-generation broadband services and networks, reduce waste, and ensure regulatory parity.”

The proposal would affect a large swath of Humboldt County, including much of Arcata, Eureka, Fortuna, McKinleyville, Rio Dell, Trinidad, and smaller communities along the local highways, as depicted in the map below.

Removal of the COLR designation does not necessarily mean landline service would become obsolete in communities AT&T currently serves, according to a fact sheet provided by the CPUC. Another carrier could volunteer to become the COLR in a given area, but they would not be required to do so. 

“If AT&T’s proposal were accepted as set forth in its application, then no COLR would be required to provide basic service in your area,” the fact sheet states. “This does not necessarily mean that no carriers would, in fact, provide service in your area — only that they would not be required to do so. Other outcomes are possible, such as another carrier besides AT&T volunteering to become the COLR in your area, or the CPUC denying AT&T’s proposal.”

(Click here to enlarge.) 

Frontier California, Inc. and Citizens Telecommunications Company of CA provide communications services in some parts of Humboldt County (as seen in the map to the right), but their reach is limited to their respective service territories. Since AT&T owns its network infrastructure, neither company can just jump in and assume services. 

AT&T has promised to maintain services “for the few customers” without access to alternative carriers. 

“None of our traditional copper landline customers in California will be left without service,” an AT&T spokesperson told the Outpost. “By our analysis, 99.7 percent of consumers within our service territory have at least three facilities-based alternative options for voice service. … Our commitment is that customers currently in our California service territory will retain access to a service connection, whether from us or another provider.”

Even so, the proposal has sparked significant concern among local and state officials who worry that the loss of landline service would hinder access to critical 9-1-1 services and emergency alerts, especially for rural residents. 

“This proposal leaves rural residents vulnerable and it’s dangerous,” Senate President Pro Tempore Mike McGuire wrote in an emailed statement to the Outpost. “AT&T’s idea to cast off their obligation as the [COLR] and stop maintaining their network will literally take people’s lifelines away. … Every resident in this state must have access to reliable phone service, no matter where you live. We’re going to fight this cockamamie proposal on behalf of the 600,000 folks who would be hung up on by AT&T.”

Assemblymember Jim Wood expressed similar concerns, adding that broadband service is notoriously unreliable on the North Coast, especially during storms, wildfires and earthquakes.

“Just with this recent storm, and the massive power outages, it is obvious that people absolutely need their landlines, not to mention the life-saving companies and organizations that are unable to serve the community during disasters without their landlines,” Wood told the Outpost. “I have not experienced [that] AT&T [is] willing to make the investments needed to extend broadband to these hard-to-reach areas. Do they not see how severe the digital divide is in rural areas? Until … reliable broadband covers all parts of this rural district, I don’t believe AT&T has any right to stop providing this most basic, and often, critical service.”

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors sent a letter of opposition to the CPUC at the end of last month. The board’s letter notes that traditional landline phone service is “the most reliable communications tool in the [county’s] safety net arsenal,” adding that AT&T hasn’t been capable of meeting the county’s current obligations to provide reliable access to communications services.

“While AT&T will be able to pre-position its resources to withdraw its wireline infrastructure, customers will not be similarly situated to find a suitable alternative service to transition their households and/or businesses,” the letter states. “COLR relief should not be granted without securing widespread alternatives with uniform, technologically neutral minimum service quality standards of [plain old telephone service] alternatives.”

The promise of modern technology and enhanced broadband services is great, but the proposal comes with too many risks, said Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services (OES) program manager Ryan Derby.

“In many scenarios, landlines will still operate during a power outage, allowing emergency management and first responder agencies to send out life-saving communications through our alert and warning system,” Derby told the Outpost. “This proposal would require modern communications networks to be installed in areas that currently don’t have coverage, contributing to an increased strain on our already vulnerable energy grid, and posing scenarios where residents could lose access to 9-1-1 services and emergency alerts, particularly when power outages or other system disruptions occur.”

AT&T’s proposal has the potential to endanger communications between emergency responders and healthcare providers, said Kate Witthaus, CEO of the Northern California Community Blood Bank. 

“As the sole blood provider for Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, communication with our local hospital customers, particularly during emergency situations, can be a matter of life and death,” Witthaus said. “We know from direct experience that our internet and cellular-based phone services can and do fail. Imagine a hospital needing an urgent blood delivery and being unable to reach us.”

As of this writing, the CPUC has received over 2,600 virtually-submitted public comments from AT&T customers across the state. Online comments can be submitted at this link.

AT&T has also asked the CPUC to remove its designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC). Doing so would allow AT&T to discontinue its federal Lifeline program (not the California LifeLine program) and other such programs designed to subsidize telecommunications support for low-income and rurally-located individuals. 

The CPUC will host a series of in-person and virtual public forums for AT&T customers to address questions regarding the two proposals. Humboldt County residents will want to attend one of the virtual forums on Tuesday, Mar. 19 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. 

More information can be found here.