AT&T, others will continue push for modern communications infrastructure next session

11/20/2014 06:04 PM

FRANKFORT — Deregulating Kentucky’s telecommunications industry will again be on the General Assembly’s agenda next year, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo said a vote will be held on the issue.

AT&T has led the charge on the topic, and Hood Harris, president of AT&T Kentucky, told lawmakers on the Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development and Tourism Thursday that allowing the company and others to concentrate on modern infrastructure rather than spending resources on outdated technology will help keep Kentucky competitive in an evolving business climate and aid the state’s educational initiatives.

Legislation hasn’t been pre-filed for next year’s session, but Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, said he may not sponsor a deregulation bill after pushing the issue the past three sessions. He told Pure Politics after the meeting that he would like a bill to originate in the Democrat-led House since the Republican-led Senate has passed previous versions.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who penned an opinion piece for The Lexington Herald-Leader saying AT&T officials and House leadership have worked to reach common ground this year, said in a statement to Pure Politics he expects the chamber to vote on legislation next year.

“I sense that there is a feeling among the members that we need to vote on this issue one way or another,” Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said in the statement.

A previous point of contention was whether rural landline users would lose their service if the bill became law. Hood and others said that’s not the case.

“Modernizing Kentucky’s communications laws will help all of its citizens and harm none,” he said.

Hood said legislation would require AT&T and others, particularly Cincinnati Bell and Windstream, from providing traditional service to urban areas or those with 15,000 or more housing units. For rural areas or those with less than 15,000 housing units, Hood said companies would be required to provide traditional landline service unless requested by customers, who would have 30 days to switch back.

Hornback told the committee he talked with officials in other states who passed similar bills, but he could not find anyone who had involuntarily lost their landline service.

“I reached out to the other states through AARP, through a lot of organizations that have a good base of people they connect with all the time, and I asked them one thing and that was to bring me somebody who had lost their service because of this type of legislation in other states,” he said. “And it’s been over three years now. Nobody has come forward and said they lost their service, their basic phone service.”

But Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, again raised concerns that rural customers would not get adequate coverage with modern IP-enabled or wireless technology. Urban customers, too, would lose access to basic landline coverage.

He also said the proposed legislation is unnecessary because Kentucky’s “technology neutral” laws do not require telecommunications companies to invest in landline service.

“The concern is in urban areas, the loss of access to basic standalone service, the loss of carrier of last resort responsibility and in rural areas, it’s the slippage of quality and reliability,” FitzGerald said.

The proposed bill, however, is backed by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the state’s Cabinet for Economic Development. Dave Adkisson, president of the chamber, said the state stands to gain in industry and education with modern communications technology.

“With access to high-speed broadband, a company in Whitesburg has just as good a chance as a company in Louisville to succeed,” he said. “Technology is a great equalizer in education and health care as well. Students in Lee County should be afforded the same opportunities for educational access as people that live in Versailles or Louisville or wherever.”

Erik Dunnigan, deputy secretary for the Cabinet for Economic Development, said improving telecommunications technology will help Kentucky’s lagging broadband speeds, which average about seven megabytes per second, compared to the U.S., which itself trails other countries like Japan.

“Japan leads the world as it relates to megabytes per second in the pipeline, as we refer to it with telecommunications and the transfer of data,” he said. “They can transfer about 127 megabytes per second. The United States averages anywhere from 10 to 25 megabytes per second.

“So think about that. Their scale is much larger, they can get data packages through their system much easier. That has a direct impact on our business community.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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