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Telephone Deregulation Bill Awaits Governor’s Signature

A telecommunications deregulation package that failed in previous General Assembly sessions finally gained the traction it needed for final passage. The measure, nicknamed the “AT&T Bill” for the lobbying efforts of that company, cleared a Senate committee and then the full chamber on Monday.

House Bill 152 is the first legislation this session to reach Gov. Steve Beshear’s desk. Last week he endorsed the deregulation plan, saying it strikes the right balance between consumer protection and providing robust broadband accessibility throughout the state.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Rick Rand (D-Bedford), allows phone companies to discontinue basic landline phone service for urban customers. In communities with fewer than 15,000 households, customers with landlines could keep that service. Rural dwellers that decide to try newer technologies will have 60 days to revert back to basic service if they’re not satisfied.

Supporters of the measure say AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell need to be relieved of landline obligations so they can focus on wiring the entire state for high-speed connectivity. But critics of the legislation insist that landlines are lifelines for elderly and disabled Kentuckians who depend on secure connections to access emergency services and operate medical devices. Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council, a vocal critic of HB 152, also raised security concerns in his testimony before the Senate Economic Development, Tourism, and Labor Committee.

Sen. Perry Clark (D-Louisville) asked whether citizens have a false sense of security about their landlines – which led to a testy exchange with FitzGerald.

The committee also heard from Hood Harris, the president of AT&T of Kentucky. He said there’s a loud chorus calling for high-speed infrastructure that will move the state forward. Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville), who has sponsored Senate legislation on the issue for several years, added that he believes consumers are driving the switch to new technologies.

Debate Continues on the Senate Floor

Less than two hours later, HB 152 reached the full Senate, where Hornback explained small changes that had been made to the legislation. He also acknowledged the Democratic sponsor of the House bill and said partisan pride should never obstruct progress.

Sen. Robin Webb (D-Grayson) questioned AT&T’s corporate promises, reflecting a consensus among critics who doubt the telecom giant will reinvest in broadband as heavily as they claim.

Finally, Sen. Albert Robinson (R-London) said his vote reflects the collective wishes of his constituents who revere their landlines.

Robinson and Webb joined Sen. Denise Harper Angel (D-Louisville) in voting against the measure. The final tally of 30 – 3 pushed the legislation over the finish line and ended its three-year marathon to passage.

Follow @ReneeKET on Twitter for updates throughout the day, and for a recap of the full day’s activities, watch Legislative Update, weeknights at 11 on KET. You can also follow the Kentucky General Assembly on KET’s Legislative Coverage app for your smartphone or tablet.