AUGUSTA, Maine — Worried that the only connection to the outside world for many of Maine’s older citizens could be cut, the Maine chapter of AARP urged lawmakers Thursday to oppose a bill that would deregulate landline phones in 25 cities and towns.
The proposed law change before the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee also could set in motion deregulation statewide, meaning companies required to provide landline service throughout Maine could be let off the hook, according to Rich Livingston, AARP Maine’s volunteer president.
The committee has yet to take any votes on the measure.
The 25 communities identified in the legislation include Lewiston, Auburn Bangor, Portland, South Portland, Brunswick, Augusta, Bath and Freeport.
“We are concerned that this bill is considered a compromise,” Livingston said in a prepared statement. “Mainers in these communities need to know that their access will disappear and service quality along with it.”
The pending legislation is a combination of two bills that were carried over from 2015. Livingston said AARP also wants the Legislature to consider the measure as a new bill and hold public hearings so those who may be affected by changes have a chance to weigh in.
The measure largely would release FairPoint Communications from being the so-called provider of last resort, which requires the company to provide the most basic landline phone service at a price set by the Public Utilities Commission.
In areas with many options for phone services, that fixed rate often is at a competitive disadvantage, according to some lawmakers working on the issue.
Livingston said they had “thoughtful questions,” but AARP Maine feels the measure deserves greater scrutiny.
“A complex and critical issue such as preserving or eliminating the right to reliable, affordable, basic landline service that protects the health and safety of thousands of vulnerable Mainers, especially seniors, deserves a public hearing,” Livingston said.
The group is urging legislative leaders to slow the committee process and require a public hearing on the latest proposals.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, House chairman of the committee, said Thursday he discussed the possibility of that with House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Eves was contemplating the situation.
Dion said the actual language of the bill was far from being finalized and the concerns voiced by AARP may be premature.
“We hear what they are saying,” Dion said. “I’ve consulted the speaker and he has to make a decision.”
Dion said the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union that includes many of the workers in Maine who repair and install telephone equipment and lines, also had concerns with the legislation.
Dion and Rep. Larry Dunphy, I-Embden, said protections are in place for landline phones in existing law and that anybody who wants to keep a landline phone wouldn’t be forced to give it up under the proposal.
Cities where there is plenty of free-market competition as well as market saturation for mobile phone use would be allowed to deregulate. That was why the measure looks to start with Maine’s largest towns and cities.
Dunphy said the concerns from AARP and its members were legitimate, especially for older rural residents, such as those who live in his House District 118, which includes a large swath of Western Maine in Franklin and Somerset counties.
Dunphy said mobile phone coverage in the region was spotty at best and that many residents simply depended on landline phones for communication.
“There are many places in my district you can’t even get one bar,” Dunphy said. “And I’m not going to throw any of my constituents under the bus. I’m just not going to do it. They have a right to some kind of connectivity.”
Dunphy said the legislation as it stands doesn’t allow phone companies to “arbitrarily” pull the plug. To do so, they would first have to go before the Maine Public Utilities Commission and prove phone customers would not be harmed in the process.
Neither Dion nor Dunphy was dismissive of AARP’s concerns. “But … with the advancement of technology in the past 10 years, is there something else out there that can give (seniors) that confidence (of having connectivity)? I think there may be,” Dunphy said.
“And we would be negligent not to look at that, because we need to make the communications industry competitive. And if they are forced to service an area like Portland, where everybody can connect somehow, it creates a competitive disadvantage.”
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, who also serves on the committee, said the committee needs more information. Hill said that could happen through a public hearing on the measure or by allowing various stakeholders, including AARP, to weigh in on the issue during work sessions.
Hill said she too has questions about the measure, including finding out how many people in the initial 25 cities listed in the bill depend mainly on landline phones.
“I think it is fair to say the bill needs a little more work, and we all could use some additional information,” Hill said.