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Senate panel advances bill relaxing oversight of phone company services in Kansas

  • Eagle Topeka Bureau
  • Published Thursday, March 21, 2013, at 7:34 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 21, 2013, at 9:38 p.m.

— A bill stripping the state’s utility regulation agency of most of its consumer protection authority over phone service was passed by a Senate committee Thursday.

A proposed amendment to uphold the Kansas Corporation Commission’s authority to address fraud and consumer-abusive practices was replaced with less stringent language proposed by AT&T, the state’s dominant telecommunications provider.

The Senate Utilities Committee passage of House Bill 2201 – and the process of letting phone companies offer their own amendments to it – angered David Springe, chief consumer counsel for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, the state agency that represents residential and small-business customers.

“They sent all the proposed amendments to the telephone companies,” Springe said. “I stood in front of this committee (testifying in the hearing on the bill), and they didn’t send them to me. Consumers are left out of the room again.”

Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg and chairman of the committee, said the bill is part of moving AT&T from a regulated phone company to an unregulated provider of a broad spectrum of communications services.

He said that the KCC would still act as a clearinghouse for consumer complaints.

“They will put you in contact with the right agency in the (phone) company to deal with that,” he said.

In addition, Kansas customers would be able to take claims of fraud or abusive practices to the Federal Communications Commission in Washington or the Kansas Attorney General’s Office.

Apple said the bill also would reduce by $18 million the statewide assessments for the Kansas Universal Service Fund, which helps offset the costs of serving customers in difficult-to-reach rural areas. AT&T alone would give up $5 million from the fund, he said.

The bill would relieve AT&T of its current responsibility as “carrier of last resort,” required to provide service to all customers in its coverage area.

“With that, they got the right to turn off the rural customers,” Springe said. “If you are a customer of AT&T in rural Kansas, they (the committee) just made you a second-class citizen.”

The bill also would free the company from having to serve low-income Kansans who receive Lifeline subsidies.

In its testimony on the bill, AT&T promised not to abandon hard-to-serve customers, although it acknowledged it may seek to switch them from landline to wireless services.

HB 2201 was proposed by AT&T and approved by most of the state’s other phone companies before it was submitted to the Legislature for consideration.

It passed the House 118-1.

Thursday’s committee vote tees up the bill for a floor vote in the Senate.

The consumer-protection amendment proposed in Thursday’s committee hearing would have clarified that the KCC would have the responsibility to oversee AT&T and other telecommunications carriers “to prevent fraud, undue discrimination and other practices harmful to consumers.”

In its answer to the amendment, AT&T revised it to read that the commission would “administer” complaints rather than “overseeing” them.

AT&T also added language stating: “But the commission shall not use this authority to regulate telecommunications carriers or electing carriers beyond the jurisdiction provided the commission in this subsection.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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