AT&T has 30,000 rural land lines still regulated under old rules by Mississippi. A bill to deregulate the lines of AT&T and other phone companies is sparking a battle within the legislature.
A bill before the Legislature would wipe out the obligations of AT&T and some other phone companies to serve expensive customers and would limit the Public Service Commission's remaining authority over those firms.
Public Service Commissioners Brandon Presley, a Democrat, and Leonard Bentz, a Republican, are fighting the move, saying customers need regulators' intervention to get their problems fixed. Other phone companies are opposed to the bill, saying it could cut the connection fees collected by small rural telephone companies.
AT&T said remaining regulations are a burden not faced by competitors, saying some of those competitors are trying to keep rules in place to hobble the state's largest provider of traditional landline telephones.
The bill could come forward for a vote in the House Public Utilities Committee as early as Wednesday, said Chairman Jim Beckett, R-Bruce.
It would remove the commission's ability to regulate prices for about 30,000 remaining stand-alone phone lines served by AT&T. Those lines are about equally split between homes and businesses and that many of them serve fax machines and security alarms, said Mayo Flynt, AT&T state president.
Several years ago, the Public Service Commission denied a rate increase requested by AT&T on those lines. The company said it had the power to raise rates equal to the rate of inflation without PSC approval, but the commission disagreed. AT&T appealed to the state Supreme Court but lost.
Presley claims AT&T is pushing the bill in part to retaliate against the PSC. Flynt, though, said it's time to relieve deregulated companies of burdens that date back to when they were regulated monopolies.
"The law shouldn't place certain obligations on some companies and not others," he said.
The company said it should no longer be required to make efforts to serve any customer in its territory, no matter the cost, because federal aid for such universal service is going away.
"We shouldn't have the obligation," Flynt said. "There's no funding."
Presley said AT&T should keep serving expensive rural customers, considering the decades of profits it's made from the state.
"I think the rural customers should have the right to have a phone line, period," Presley said.
Beckett said he's in talks with various parties and the bill could change. Dean Kurtz, a CenturyLink official, said AT&T has agreed to cut a provision that would have decreased the access charges received by small phone companies. CenturyLink, based in Monroe, La., serves 20,000 lines in Mississippi, mainly in and around Olive Branch.
Rick Lambert, a lawyer for the Telephone Association of the Southeast, which represents smaller phone companies, said his group is against the bill in part because it is concerned about access charges. The measure would also ban Mississippi from setting up its own universal service fund, which could help subsidize serve in rural areas, he said.
Presley and Bentz also oppose the bill because they want the PSC to keep collecting data on complaints. Presley said that the commission's authority to handle complaints is a key aid to consumers, even when the commission has little or no authority over the service.
"One of the big areas we help consumers with is cutting through red tape," Presley said.
Presley cited commission data that showed complaints against AT&T have risen sharply in recent years, although Flynt said AT&T's own numbers show only half as many complaints as Presley cited.
Flynt, though, says AT&T already addresses complaints from the commission in areas that the commission doesn't regulate, and would continue to do so. He noted that the same section of the bill would relieve AT&Tfrom its requirement to file financial reports
"There's nothing for the PSC to do with that data," Mayo said. "It's just a burden."