More than 45 Consumer Groups Urge Ohio Lawmakers To Oppose Harmful Telephone Legislation

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Today, more than 45 consumer, senior and low-income groups from across Ohio are sending a letter to lawmakers urging them to strengthen two bills on behalf of the state’s residential telephone consumers. Today’s action underscores growing concern from consumers that the proposed bills, Substitute Senate Bill 162 and House Bill 276, are harmful to customers of basic and bundled phone services.

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We are deeply concerned that as the recession continues and job losses mount, more and more Ohioans are struggling to keep food on their table and a roof over their heads.

Today, more than 45 consumer, senior and low-income groups from across Ohio are sending a letter to lawmakers urging them to strengthen two bills on behalf of the state’s residential telephone consumers. Today’s action underscores growing concern from consumers that the proposed bills, Substitute Senate Bill 162 and House Bill 276, are harmful to customers of basic and bundled phone services.

The groups, many of whom have come together as Ohioans Protecting Telephone Consumers (OPTC), oppose these bills as proposed. Many of the OPTC organizations have outlined their opposition to the proposed legislation in committee hearings where the bill is being considered.

“We are united in our belief that it is not good public policy to pass legislation that gives benefits to the telephone companies at the expense of residential customers,” said Consumers’ Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander. “There are no net benefits in these bills for consumers – there are only take aways.”

Consumer leaders, representing millions of consumers, are asking lawmakers to reconsider the proposed bills because they would allow rate increases for basic telephone services, weaken consumer protections, reduce low-income Lifeline benefits, lower telephone service quality standards and fail to expand broadband access for all Ohioans. A sampling of the comments include:

”We are deeply concerned that as the recession continues and job losses mount, more and more Ohioans are struggling to keep food on their table and a roof over their heads," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks. "The last thing Ohioans need right now is rising telephone rates. We urge Ohio's legislators to oppose the telephone deregulation bill, and protect consumers instead."

"The annual price increases would hit low-income consumers the hardest, especially with the troubled economy," said Noel Morgan, attorney for Communities United for Action. "In addition, because the phone companies aggressively market their bundles or packages of telecom services, basic protections should not be eliminated, as the legislation would do."

“Ohioans are struggling to keep up with current household expenses; so allowing annual telephone rate increases would worsen this hardship," said Ellis Jacobs, attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.

“Many seniors continue to rely on home telephone service as their primary method of communicating," said Mike Walters of Pro-Seniors. "This legislation fails to ensure they will continue to receive service at an affordable, reasonable price."

“With decreased service quality, Ohio’s elderly could be alone and without telephone service for several days with no way to call for help,” said Ron Bridges of AARP Ohio.

“There is a reason they call it ‘Lifeline.’ A telephone is a necessity in modern society, not an extra convenience,” said Philip E. Cole, executive director of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, which represents Ohio’s network of 52 agencies serving low-income people in all 88 counties.

"Eliminating vital consumer protections for telephone services would negatively affect seniors, many of whom rely on their landline to communicate with family, doctors, emergency services and community," said Lynn Weiland, administrator for the Community Office of Aging, Cuyahoga County Department of Senior and Adult Services.

“In these tough economic times, the last thing Ohioans need is increasing telephone bills,” said Noel Williams of the Columbus NAACP. “This legislation would harm Ohioans who are most vulnerable, including those on the low-income Lifeline program. This legislation, as proposed, is simply unacceptable."

Among the concerns OPTC is raising about the proposed Am. S.B. 162 and House Bill 276 is that they:

  • Allow all local telephone companies in Ohio to raise their monthly rates for basic telephone service by $1.25 every year. This is the equivalent to a 20 to 40 percent rate increase over the next few years for customers receiving basic service. Another increase could come if carriers get the telephone companies to reduce the access charges they pay. Under the bills, any reductions in access charges would be allocated to customers to pay. It also will create another rate increase for consumers to pay for a portion of the Lifeline discount.
  • Weaken or remove consumer protections. The legislation would adversely affect current consumer protections on such important matters as disconnection, reconnection and security deposits.
  • Reduce low-income consumer benefits. Currently, hundreds of thousands of low-income Ohioans benefit from discounts on basic landline service through the Lifeline program. The proposed legislation eliminates Lifeline customers’ protection from rate increases and severely reduces the program’s educational marketing efforts. Many eligible consumers will not be informed about the availability of a significant discount off the price of their basic local telephone service.
  • Lower service quality standards. For example, the period of time telephone companies have to restore out-of-service telephone lines increases from 24 hours to 72 hours. While current rules require telephone companies to provide automatic credits for outages of 72 hours or longer, the legislation takes away the PUCO’s authority to order those credits automatically if this standard is not met. This could result in customers without service for an extended period of time which is of particular concern to seniors who are more likely to rely exclusively on a landline phone and who may need their phone to access emergency services.
  • Fail to maintain consumer protections for customers with bundled telecommunications services. Customers who receive a bundle or package of telecommunication services do not receive the minimal safeguards described above in the legislation. For example, there is no time requirement for telephone companies to install bundles, restore outages or reconnect a customer who has been disconnected for non-payment. There also is no limit on the deposit the telephone company could charge to initiate telephone services. In addition, telephone companies are currently required to provide access to 9-1-1 emergency services for 14 days following any customer's disconnection for nonpayment. Under the legislation, this requirement would be eliminated for customers with packages or bundles, which could put customers’ health and safety at risk. Customers buying bundled services would have only limited protections from “unfair or deceptive” practices.
  • Fail to provide commitments for broadband access to all Ohioans. Expanding consumers’ access to broadband is important for economic development and job creation. Access provides customers with opportunities, including the ability to receive telephone and Internet service over a high-speed connection. However, the proposed legislation does not require telephone companies to invest in broadband services for rural Ohio.

The consumer groups urge Ohioans to contact their legislators immediately and let them know the importance of keeping rates reasonable and telephone consumer protections intact.

Editor’s Notes:

A copy of the letter is attached to this press release. Also included is a list of the more than 45 organizations that signed the letter to oppose the telephone legislation.

Additional Contacts:

  • Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, Executive Director, Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, (614) 221-4336 ext. 222
  • Noel Morgan, attorney, Communities United For Action, (513) 362-2837
  • Ellis Jacobs, attorney, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, (937) 535-4419
  • Mike Walters, Legal Hotline Managing Attorney, Pro-Seniors, (513) 458-5532
  • Ron Bridges, Associate State Director for Advocacy, AARP Ohio, (614) 222-1503
  • Philip E. Cole, Executive Director, Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, (614) 224-8500
  • Lynn Weiland, Administrator for the Community Office of Aging, Cuyahoga County Dept. of Senior and Adult Services, (216) 420-6771
  • Noel Williams, President, Columbus NAACP, (614) 464-1108

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